Space & Innovation

Alien Debris Found in Lunar Craters

A new look a relatively slow impacts on the moon opens the possibility that many minerals found there are not from the moon at all.

Strange minerals detected at the centers of impact craters on the moon may be the shattered remains of the space rocks that made the craters and not exhumed bits of the moon's interior, as had been previously thought.

The foreign matter in the craters is probably asteroid debris and some could even be from Earth, which has thrown off its share of material as it's been battered by asteroids and comets over the eons.

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The discovery comes not from finding anything new in the craters themselves, but by planetary scientists who were looking at models of how meteorite impacts affect the moon. Specifically, the researchers simulated some high-angle, exceptionally slow impacts -- at least slow compared to possible impact speeds -- and they were surprised at what they found.

"Nobody has done it at such high resolution," said planetary scientist Jay Melosh of Purdue University. Melosh and his colleagues published a paper on the discovery in the May 26 online issue of the journal Nature Geoscience.

They found that when a slow enough impact happened, at speeds of less than 27,000 miles per hour (43,000 kph), the rock that struck doesn't necessarily vaporize. Instead, it gets shattered into a rain of debris that is then swept back down the crater sides and piles up in the crater's central peak.

PHOTOS: Apollo 18: Myths of the Moon Missions

In the case of craters like Copernicus (pictured top), the foreign material stands out because it contains minerals called spinels. These only form under great pressure -- in the Earth's mantle, for instance, and perhaps in the mantle of the moon. But spinels are also common in some asteroids, said Melosh, which are fragments of broken or failed planets from earlier days in the formation of our solar system.

The team has concluded, therefore, that the unusual minerals observed in the central peaks of many lunar impact craters are not lunar natives, but imports.

That conclusion could also explain why the same minerals, if they were instead from the interior of the moon, are not found in the largest impact basins -- as would be expected if the impact event was larger and penetrated deeper into the moon.

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"An origin from within the Moon does not readily explain why the observed spinel deposits are associated with craters like Tycho and Copernicus instead of the largest impact basins," writes Arizona State University researcher Erik Asphaug in a commentary on the paper. "Excavation of deep-seated materials should favor the largest cratering events."

The new impact modeling also implies that pockets of early Earth material might be in cold storage on the moon, says Asphaug. The young Earth was bombarded with asteroids that sent terrestrial debris into space at speeds that were pretty slow and within the range of this model.

"Even more provocative," explains Asphaug, "is the suggestion that we might someday find Earth's protobiological materials, no longer available on our geologically active and repeatedly recycled planet, in dry storage up in the lunar ‘attic'."

Lunar Orbiter image of the 93-mile-wide Copernicus Crater with this bright central peaks.

Apollo 18: Myths of the Moon Missions

Sept. 2, 2011 --

In the movie "Apollo 18," lost footage taken from what was the canceled Apollo 18 mission to the moon reveals a coverup. NASA buried the mission after astronauts encountered hostile life forms on the moon. The Apollo missions captured the imagination of a generation, so it's no small wonder that fictional accounts -- such as that of "Apollo 18" -- of what happened during NASA's golden age still find new angles on a rich history. Although the Apollo program is a technological and historical legend, as with most stories of heroes and triumph, there have been some embellishments and distortions along the way. Explore the myths, misconceptions and urban legends that color the history of the Apollo missions. (And good news for space enthusiasts: We're not even mentioning the delusion that the moon landing was a hoax.)

Lunar Pathogens?

We begin with a myth of the Apollo era that was soon squashed after astronauts returned home. Prior to the first successful landing of astronauts on the lunar surface, NASA scientists theorized that their astronauts may have been contaminated with pathogenic microorganisms to which humans would have no resistance. The space agency even enforced a 21-day quarantine for astronauts returning from space. In this photo, Aldrin greets his visiting family via telephone while still constrained in the Mobile Quarantine Facility in Houston, Texas. Biomedical studies conducted following the quarantine period determined that neither the astronauts nor any of the living species that brought along on the mission, including plants and animals, suffered any adverse health effects as a direct result of exposure to lunar material.

Aldrin's UFO?

"Apollo 18" hinges on the premise that the cancelled Apollo 18 mission was in fact carried out, but covered up after the space agency discovered the presence of hostile alien life on the lunar surface. We all know that in reality Apollo astronauts who landed on the moon never stumbled onto any lunar life. But did Buzz Aldrin, as he appears to claim in this interview for a documentary, spot a UFO while en route to the moon? As Aldrin would later go on to explain following the airing of these comments, not even close. What he actually saw, which he and his fellow astronauts immediately confirmed, was "one of the panels from the separation of the spacecraft from the upper stage."

The Million Dollar... Pen?

To paraphrase an old joke: When presented with the challenge of writing in a zero-gravity environment, the United States and the Soviet Union approached the same problem in two different ways. NASA spent millions of dollars developing and testing the space pen. The Russians, on the other hand, used a pencil. In reality, the space pen wasn't developed by NASA, but rather a private company that later sold its invention to both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. A kernel of truth is hidden in this story, however. NASA originally used mechanical pencils and hired a private contractor to supply "34 units" at a price of $4,382.50 in 1965 (around $30,000 today). The public outcry against this purchase led NASA to the cheaper alternative designed by Fisher Space.

Why Was Armstrong First?

Everyone knows that Neil Armstrong was the first man to set foot on the moon, followed closely by Buzz Aldrin. But how many people know the reason why Armstrong was first? In one version of events, Armstrong was selected as the first man to set foot on the moon so that NASA could symbolically convey the message that civilians would be leading the charge with space exploration rather than the military. Aldrin had a long career with the Air Force prior to becoming an astronaut. This account, however, is a myth. For his part, Armstrong had spent time in the military before joining the public sector as a civilian. So why was he chosen first? The answer is much less complicated: It was his turn to be commander after rotating through as backup commander during Apollo 8.

Popular Support?

Americans these days look back on the legacy of the space program with pride and admiration. This singular technological achievement is unrivaled to the day. Although Americans may look back fondly at that glorious era, their 1960s counterparts weren't quite as supportive. The Apollo program is widely believed to have been popular during its time, but polling data taken from the era suggest that simply wasn't the case. Throughout the entire era, surveys consisted showed that less than 50 percent of the American public favored the program. Even after Armstrong took his first steps on the moon in 1969, only 53 percent of American surveyed said the accomplishment was worth the cost, according to a report by Space.com.

What Rocket?

Could the real reason astronauts haven't returned to the moon be because NASA has simply forgotten how? According to this rumor, propagated by writers including Terry Bisson and astronomer John Lewis in his book "Mining the Sky" in 1996, NASA simply lost its blueprints to the Saturn V rockets. NASA was quick to point out that microfilm of the blueprints is still in storage at Marshall Space Center. So why can't NASA rebuild the Saturn rockets? As explained in 2009 by NASA Lunar Science Institute director David Morrison, many of the companies that manufacture the parts that made up the Saturn V have since gone out of business and the parts are no longer available. Besides, rocket technology has advanced somewhat since the Apollo era.

Tang, Anyone?

As much as we'd all like to believe it's true, NASA did not invent Tang during the Apollo missions. In fact, the instant drink mix had been invented during the 1950s by General Foods Corporation. When NASA adopted it during John Glenn's initial venture into space and for subsequent journeys, the missions popularized the product. Given the kinds of innovations NASA dreamed up during the Apollo years, these misconceptions have become common. Other developments around the same era, such as Teflon and Velcro, are also falsely attributed to the space agency.

Space Pen Savior?

Would you believe the space pen was responsible for preventing Aldrin and Armstrong from being stranded on the moon? The Fisher Space Pen folks would like you to think that's the case, but that's not exactly how it happened. When Armstrong and Aldrin returned to the lunar lander after their historic space walks, the astronauts discovered the "the ascent engine's arming circuit breaker was broken off on the panel," according to Aldrin. In other words, a circuit needed to power the engines to get the Apollo 11 astronauts off the moon simply wasn't working. To complete the circuit, the astronauts didn't use a space pen but rather an ordinary felt-tip marker.