This summer marks the start of a three-year-long 40th anniversary celebration of NASA's Apollo lunar landings. The celebration started July 20 with Apollo 11-listed on many calendars as "Moon Day".
The event continues with Apollo 12's 40th anniversary on Nov. 19; it then resumes in 2010 through 2012 with the 40th anniversaries of the Apollo 14 through 17 lunar landings. Let's hope that by Apollo 11's 50th birthday, the U.S. will be well on its way with sending humans back to the Moon and beyond.
In terms of our nearest neighbor in space, Apollo has helped scientists paint a more complete picture of the Moon. Rock samples, instrument data records, and photography contributed to a better understanding of our rocky companion. Still, many questions remain unanswered.
Within days of the return of lunar rock and soil samples, researchers began tackling the mysteries of the Moon. In January 1970, nearly 1,000 space scientists from 10 nations assembled at NASA's Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, Tx. This conference of "lunatics" focused on the presentations of 142 principal investigators who examined Apollo 11 rock and dust samples between July and December 1969.
Here are a few of the Apollo 11 discoveries announced by investigators during that momentous gathering:
•The Moon is about 4.6 billion years old. The age of the Moon is identical to the Earth.
•The Moon was extremely hot in the past. In addition to a period of intense bombardment, the Moon was also volcanic. Lava rocks at Tranquility Base are similar to lava rocks from Hawaii.
•Apollo 11 astronauts observed transient lunar phenomena (or "outgassing") flying over the crater Aristarchus; this TLP event indicates that the lunar interior is still molten.
•Two percent of the lunar surface is composed of organic-rich carbonaceous chondrite material. The carbon-rich stuff is most likely derived from meteorites. Many scientists believe space organics contributed to the evolution of life on Earth.
•Moon rocks are "first cousins" to terrestrial rocks. This fact indicates that the Earth and Moon have a common heritage.
•There is evidence of gold, silver, uranium, thorium, titanium, iron, zircon, rubies, garnets and phosphates on the Moon. Only future prospecting will determine if these metals and minerals exist in extractible quantities.
•Three new minerals that do not exist on Earth were discovered in Apollo 11 rocks. Perhaps these minerals might have industrial applications.
•Erosion is occurring on the Moon being caused by several processes: impacts, volcanism, moonquakes and solar/cosmic particle bombardment. Loose rocks scattered around the surface should leave behind evidence of trenching but the features are not visible. What filled up the trenches?
•Tektites are odd, meteorite-like natural glass rocks found on Earth. About 50 percent of the Moon is composed of similar, although not identical, natural glass-both impact and volcanic glasses. Apollo 11 astronauts didn't find tektites, but an Apollo 12 lunar rock contains material that is chemically identical to some tektites. On Sept. 22, 1969, NASA announced that researcher Dean Chapman had used a computer to trace the trajectory patterns of Australasian tektites back to a very surprising source-the lunar crater Tycho.
What's in the Sky: In the south look for the constellation Scorpius with its magnificent deep sky objects: M6 the Butterfly Cluster, and M7 the Ptolemy Cluster, near Shaula; the globular clusters M4 and M 80 are near Antares.
Lou Varricchio, M.Sc., is a former NASA science writer. You can learn more about the Moon in his book, "Inconstant Moon: Discovery and Controversy on the Way to Moon" (Xlibris/Random House). The book is available online at Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble.com.