• Moon samples were collected by Apollo 17 in 1972
  • Scientists developed a new method for studying Moon samples
  • APT involves studying the atoms of Moon dust

Scientists have discovered a new method that allows them to extract vital information from a single microscopic speck of Moon dust. Using the new technique will help in conserving the limited supply of Moon rock samples collected by NASA’s previous Apollo missions.

The samples currently being studied in laboratories were brought to Earth by the Apollo 17 mission in 1972. For almost 50 years, scientists have been studying the same batch of samples from NASA’s last mission to the Moon.

Since the supply of the Moon dust is limited, scientists from the University of Chicago looked into new ways of efficiently studying the samples. Through their research, they came up with an innovative technique known as atom probe tomography (APT).

As its name suggests, APT involves using high-resolution images of each sample’s atom. This means that even with a tiny grain of moon dust, scientists will be able to gather as much information as they can by studying its atoms.

Geophysicist Philipp Heck of the University of Chicago noted that aside from conserving the remaining Moon dust, the new method could be used to carry out major studies with small samples.

“Fifty years ago, no one anticipated that someone would ever analyze a sample with this technique, and only using a tiny bit of one grain,” he said in a press release. “Thousands of such grains could be on the glove of an astronaut, and it would be sufficient material for a big study.”

Heck and his team recently used APT to study a nanoscopic speck of Moon dust. For their experiment, scientists carved out a needle-shaped sample from a single grain. They then used a laser to knock off atoms one by one from their sample.

As the atoms get thrown off by the laser, they fly off and hit a detector plate. According to the scientists, how the atoms strike the plate provided them with information regarding the sample’s actual composition. For instance, since iron is a heavier element than hydrogen, it takes longer to hit the detector plate once it flies away from the sample.

“This technique has such high sensitivity and resolution, you find things you wouldn't find otherwise and only use up a small bit of the sample,” Heck stated.

Astronaut Charles Duke photographed collecting lunar samples at Station 1
Astronaut Charles M. Duke Jr., lunar module pilot, is photographed collecting lunar samples at Station No. 1, during the first Apollo 16 extravehicular activity (EVA), at the Descartes landing site. This picture, looking eastward, was taken by astronaut John W. Young, commander. Duke is standing at the rim of Plum Crater. The parked Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV) can be seen in the left background. While astronauts Young and Duke descended in the Lunar Module (LM) "Orion" to explore the Descartes highlands region of the moon, astronaut Thomas K. Mattingly II, command module pilot, remained with the Command and Service Modules (CSM) "Casper" in lunar orbit. NASA/JSC