NASA’s Astromaterials sample collection, which includes a library of Apollo lunar and Antarctic meteorite samples, is now accessible online for science researchers and the public through a new virtual exploration tool.
The website of the Astromaterials 3D Explorer offers an unprecedented analysis platform to engage the public in a new way and investigate the importance of NASA’s collections of space rock.
As NASA prepares to send a new group of astronauts to the Moon with the Artemis Lunar Exploration Program, the virtual exchange of Apollo samples obtained some 50 years ago is particularly timely.
As the agency returns to the moon, more of the moon will be explored by robots and humans – and gather more samples than ever before.
As they crashed to Earth or were picked up by Apollo astronauts scouring the lunar soil, the samples featured on the website were preserved on Earth and maintained in pristine condition.
Many of the samples for scientific study are stored.
Erika Blumenfeld, transdisciplinary artist and senior scientist and project manager for 3D astromaterials at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, said that there are some subsamples available for educators or in exhibitions and installations around the world, but the majority of the collection is in a vaulted clean room facility to conserve and protect them. “Finding a way to make these samples more accessible is part of our goal to expand people’s knowledge of the samples and exploration.”
A visual journey
Blumenfeld said that through the new website, a researcher, a curious child and anyone in between would “in a sense hold the rocks in their hands,”
Before audiences can delve into learning about a specific sample, the platform also provides a virtual ride across the Milky Way.
Blumenfeld said, “Our goal is to make the user feel like they are in the inner solar system or the asteroid belt,” “We see meteorites, we read about them, and we know about lunar rock samples, but Astromaterials 3D really brings that sense of imagination and exploration in a visual and visceral way.”
Then, “people can actually interact with the rocks individually and have the opportunity to wonder, ask questions, study and explore,” Blumenfeld said.
Showcase of Narratives
‘I think every rock has its own story of origin,’ said Blumenfeld. Rocks are storytellers, time travelers… I was encouraged to hear geologists discuss their unique interest in a geological phase.
You still, invariably, hear them say, ‘But the story is in the rock.’
In the case of meteorites, viewers navigating through the samples on the website will follow the past of any rock and discover what happened to it – and follow it to its final destination, such as Antarctica.
There is an opportunity for some of the samples obtained on the Moon to view video taken while the sample was collected by the astronaut.
The first sample ever found on the Moon – the Apollo 11 random sample taken by astronaut Neil Armstrong – and three from Apollo 17 are featured on the website.
As more missions come online, more “Apollo-era content will become available.”
Material science is significant…
Each sample provides cutting-edge insights into the matter within, but most importantly for scientists – without having to resort to damaging techniques to research its composition and origin.
A “digitized version of the rock, a 3-D visualization of the real thing,” Blumenfeld said on the website. “So it’s using current technology to get a high enough resolution, what we call a research-grade 3D model.”
Using high-resolution imaging, the multidisciplinary team manually photographed the rocks from at least 240 different angles in a nitrogen cabinet in a clean room to create these models.
Each was then scanned with computed X-ray tomography (CT).
On the Explorer site, the internal and exterior scans are combined into one, so you can simultaneously see the inside and outside of the specimen and practically dissect it.
This modernization of the practices of curation reporting also provides greater opportunities for targeted scholarship. “This is a new first step for analyses, as CT scans provide in and of themselves with CT scans.”