One Small Piece of Moon Dust, One Giant Leap for Lunar Studies

(CN) – Scientists have begun to use a new and trailblazing laser-based technique when examining moon rocks brought to Earth – and they only need a single grain of moon dust to do it.

A study published Friday in Meteoritics & Planetary Science reveals that a team of scientists have begun using atom probe tomography (APT), to make practical and detailed discoveries about the moon’s geology using a speck of moon dust no wider than a single strand of human hair. While the technique has been used in the past in the steel and industrial sector, this is the first time that the method has been used to analyze material from moon, an astronomical body that has captivated the world and its researchers for generations.

A grain of moon dust sharpened into a microscopic tip. (The Field Museum)

The scientists say the process begins by using a targeted beam to carve out a microscopic sharp tip on the surface of a grain of moon dust. They then repeatedly strike the moon grain with a series of lasers, blasting off the grain’s atoms one at a time onto a nearby plate. Researchers say that because different types of elements and atoms are lighter or heavier than others, the amount of time that it takes for an atom to be launched from the moon dust and then strike the plate can tell scientists what kind of material was just struck.

They then take this data and create 3-D maps of moon materials that are detailed down to the nanoscopic level. The maps help shed light on the makeup of the moon’s soil and what kind of materials can exist within and around it, such as helium and water.

Jennika Greer, first author of the study and a doctoral student at the Field Museum and University of Chicago, says that while these advancements may not solve the mysteries about moon’s overall construction, the information gleaned about its surface could be vital.

“This work won’t tell us much about the moon’s bulk composition, because we’re only looking at the outermost 100 nanometers of our lunar material. It can, however, tell us a lot about the surface of the moon,” Greer said in an email.

Researchers say the new technique also helps reveal the true scope of space weathering, the process by which natural materials in space are degraded by the sun’s rays and cosmic radiation, as well as offers insight into how space weathering works.

“Everything that we see when we look up at the moon in the sky is subject to space weathering. Using this technique, we can better understand nanoscale features (such as the nanophase iron particles) individually. Some of the products of space weathering could be useful resources for a future lunar base, so it is important to study the moon’s soil,” Greer said.

Geologist and NASA astronaut Harrison Schmitt on the surface of the moon during the Apollo 17 mission in 1972. (NASA photo)

Perhaps one of the greatest advantages to this method is the sheer number of discoveries that can be made using a single grain of moon material. Given that NASA last deployed a team of astronauts to the surface of the moon in 1972 and that those astronauts only brought back around 245 pounds of lunar materials, the world’s supply of moon rocks is extremely limited.

Because this new technique requires such a small amount of moon material, researchers are hopeful that our supply of moon rocks can be maintained and preserved for years to come. Researchers suggest that just the dust particles found on an astronaut’s glove would be more than enough to provide a considerable amount of crucial data.

Greer says the method’s advantage will not only provide new perspectives on the moon in the immediate sense, but will also encourage future research efforts and breakthroughs going forward.

“With our technique of atom probe tomography, we are able to see nanoscale features that may not have been observed before, even in samples that we’ve had for decades. We also consume a very small volume of sample, so precious materials (like those from the sample return missions of Apollo, Stardust, Hayabusa, etc.) can be preserved for future study while learning about them in the present,” Greer said.

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