Meteorites transport rocks all around this giant solar system of ours, but no rock’s journey is quite as strange as the lunar sample 10072,41 that went from the moon to the Earth, up to the space station, then back to Earth to await a return to the Moon.
To celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landings, NASA sent a chunk of the rock collected by the astronauts during their first journey to the moon up to the space station. The rock launched on the space shuttle Discovery as part of mission STS-119 in March 2009, stayed through the July anniversary, and returned to Earth on mission STS-128 at the end of the month to begin a celebrity tour around America.
Lunar sample 10072,41 on Earth prior to being sent to the space station. Image credit: NASA
Lunar sample 10072,41 is a 21 gram (0.7 ounce) chunk of basalt roughly 3.6 billion years old, and nothing all that special among the lunar samples. It was selected from the 23 kilograms (50 pounds) of rock samples collected by Neil Armstrong and Buz Aldren during Apollo 11 as the prettiest of the lunar samples that had been “somewhat contaminated” through exposure to the Earth’s atmosphere by scientists performing tests on it.
A senior planetary scientist and the Lunar Curator at the Lunar Receiving Laboratory Gary Lofgren was responsible to making the selection, explaining to collectSPACE:
“We didn’t want to contaminate a pristine sample for this. The nicest piece to use for this, size-wise and for its looks, was this particular rock. There was nothing magic about it other than it was the nicest of the returned rock.”
Sample 10072,41 was collected by Neil Armstrong towards the end of his initial 2.5 hour moonwalk as part of a mess of rocks thrown into a box together described in the crew checklist as a “bulk sample.”
The rock was unveiled during a ceremony from the space station on the anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.
NASA astronaut Michael Barratt revealed the rock’s presence on the space station, saying in part:
“This rock was brought by the space shuttle Discovery here, to the International Space Station, the first stop in America’s return to the Moon. It was brought here as a symbol of NASA’s resolve to successfully carry out America’s plan to build a new generation of spacecraft for a new generation of explorers.
This rock will be returned to Earth later this year, and then displayed as a reminder to those working on our new [Orion] spacecraft of what can be achieved with innovation and sheer will. This rock also will be displayed around the country to serve as a symbol for all Americans of the fortitude of our nation as we press forward in space.
When Americans return to the Moon, a piece of this rock will go with them to be returned to its home. It is an important reminder that America’s commitment to human exploration did not end with the twelve astronauts who walked on the lunar surface. Apollo was just the beginning.”
Lunar sample 10072,41 showing off in microgravity. Image credit: NASA
If sample 10072,41 does make it back to the moon one day, it won’t be the first Apollo sample to head home. A sample collected by the Apollo 12 crew was returned by Apollo 16 as part of an investigation into the Moon’s magnetic field. But even if it isn’t the first to return, this rock will certainly be the one with the strangest story.