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Breaking Down

StarDate: 
December 13, 2015

It’s been more than four decades since the last Apollo astronauts returned from the Moon. Yet scientists are still probing the treasure trove of rocks and soil the astronauts brought back. A few years ago, for example, they discovered that water permeates the soil across much of the lunar surface.

But a recent report suggests that it’s getting harder to learn from the lunar samples, because the samples are changing. Water seeping into their storage containers may be causing some of the soil samples to break down. As the report puts it, “the ... soils are literally crumbling to dust.”

Clockwise from top left: Orange soil found by Apollo 17 astronauts; Apollo 15 astronaut Jim Irwin scoops up soil; a soil container in the labClockwise from top left: Orange soil found by Apollo 17 astronauts; Apollo 15 astronaut Jim Irwin scoops up soil; a soil container in the labThe six Apollo missions brought 842 pounds of rock and soil back to Earth. Thousands of tiny samples have been sent to researchers around the world for analysis. But hundreds of pounds are still in storage, waiting for scientists to develop new tools and techniques for studying them.

The recent report, though, found that grains of lunar soil are falling apart. There are far fewer large grains today than when the samples were first brought to Earth. The researchers suggest that water vapor seeps into the storage containers, breaking the grains of soil into smaller and smaller bits. So as scientists continue to study the soil, they may need to keep in mind that it’s not quite what it was when it first landed on Earth.

Look for the beautiful thin crescent Moon shortly after sunset this evening — a world with a few scars left by human explorers.

Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2015


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