Lunar samples returned by China’s Chang’e-5 mission have grabbed the attention of geologists and astronomers worldwide, starting a research frenzy as Chinese and international scientists alike clamour to have a peek at the alien rocks under a microscope.
Scientists like Li Xian-Hua, who formerly dedicated their time and effort to materials of a more terrestrial nature, have opted to spend more time devoted to examining China’s first lunar samples.
Li, a geochronologist based at the Institute of Geology and Geophysics (IGG), a department of China’s Academy of Sciences in Beijing, told Nature Magazine that she was among many young academics fortunate enough to spend some time with the priceless soil.
The rush to examine the roughly 1.7 kilograms (3.8 pounds) of dirt is not without reason. Chang’e-5’s successful return mission marked the first time the scientific community has collected lunar material since the Soviet era.
The reason a wave of interest surrounds China’s moon rocks is that they provide insight into a “different era of lunar magmatism”, relative to materials previously examined, said Clive Neal, a University of Notre Dame geoscientist.
Chang’e 5’s regolith sample was retrieved from the Oceanus Procellarum region on the moon’s northern territories. The material, predominantly volcanic basalt, is believed to be younger than samples retrieved by NASA and the Soviets, potentially dating to when the moon was still volcanically active.
In July 2021, China’s National Space Administration reported it had released 31 samples of lunar soil, each weighing 17.5 grams, to research applicants nationally. China’s chief space authority said further rounds of applications had already taken place with more expected.
Already several high-profile research papers and studies have been published. Early estimates dated the soil to be around 1.96 billion years old, give or take 57 million years.
A later research paper placed the sample date closer to two billion years, with an accuracy of about 4 million years. Li, an expert on volcanic material, corroborated the latter result, coming to a similar conclusion after conducting similar research.
Like with most scientific discoveries, confirmation of the moon’s volcanic history has only left researchers like Lin Yanting, a planetary scientist at IGG, with more questions than answers. When discussing the possible source of heat that would facilitate volcanism, Lin said he could only hypothesize and had no concrete answer.
Lin did say that he doesn’t expect interest in Chang’e 5’s return sample to wane. China has two sample return missions planned for the next decade which should keep attention piqued.
The first, a return to the moon, this time closer to the south pole. The second sample mission may prove tougher, as China has set its eye on a Mars sample mission.