Mount Holyoke prof leads local team studying lunar stones on eve of moon landing’s 50th anniversary

  • At top left, a photo from July 20, 1969, made available by NASA shows Buzz Aldrin’s boot and bootprint during a test of the lunar soil during the Apollo 11 moonwalk. At bottom left, Mount Holyoke College astronomy Professor Darby Dyar holds a moon rock in her hand. At right, Dyar is seen in her lab with students.

  • Darby Dyar, a Mount Holyoke astronomy professor, in her lab. At top, Dyar holds a rock from the moon. STAFF PHOTOS/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Darby Dyar, a Mount Holyoke College astronomy professor, in her lab. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Mount Holyoke College astronomy Professor Darby Dyaris seen in her lab recently with samples from the moon. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS



  • In this July 20, 1969 photo made available by NASA, astronaut Buzz Aldrin Jr. poses for a photograph beside the U.S. flag on the moon during the Apollo 11 mission. Aldrin and fellow astronaut Neil Armstrong were the first men to walk on the lunar surface with temperatures ranging from 243 degrees above to 279 degrees below zero. Astronaut Michael Collins flew the command module. NEIL ARMSTRONG/NASA via AP

Staff Writer
Thursday, July 18, 2019

SOUTH HADLEY — Darby Dyar still remembers the awe she experienced the first time she studied a sample of lunar rock.

“They’re just beautiful to look at under the microscope,” said Dyar, an astronomy professor at Mount Holyoke College. “It just blows your mind. You’re like, ‘Wow.’ It’s so beautiful. The grains are just pristine.”

Dyar first started working with lunar samples when she was doing her Ph.D. research in 1979, so moon stones are nothing new for her. That is, until this year, when she and other local researchers were given the chance to study specially preserved lunar stones for the first time ever.

With the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing approaching on July 20, NASA selected Dyar to lead a research team from Mount Holyoke and the University of Massachusetts Amherst that’s studying moon samples that have never been exposed to Earth’s atmosphere.  Kept under vacuum seal for close to 50 years since astronauts brought them back from the moon, Dyar called the pea-sized stones a “national treasure.”

When studying rock samples from the Earth’s surface, geologists are always working backward, she said, understanding that the samples have been significantly altered by water and the elements. But that’s not the case with lunar rock.

“These things are incredibly precious,” she said. “It makes my hands shake when I work with them. I have all these flashbacks of watching Neil Armstrong walk on the moon.”

NASA announced in March that Dyar’s team was one of nine that would gain access to the rare untouched samples from the Apollo missions — right in time for the 50th anniversary.

Dyar’s research interest in the stones is to determine their hydrogen and oxygen content. That data can offer insights into what the interior of the moon is like.

The lunar samples she is studying were formed from occasional explosive eruptions of magma on the moon, Dyar said. Under the cold and almost vacuum-like conditions of the moon, the magma immediately cools to form glass beads on the moon’s surface.

“These are important because the magma is coming from the lunar interior,” Dyar said.

By analyzing those stones — and by extension the composition of the moon’s interior — Dyar and her fellow researchers can glean insights into the bigger questions of how planets and moons form, and why some form with water and become habitable.

The lunar samples Dyar has previously studied have been exposed to, and contaminated by, Earth’s own atmosphere and water.

“As earthlings we forget that every rock we pick up … has seen water,” she said. That’s not the case for these rocks, however, because the moon has only trace amounts of water.

During the Apollo missions, NASA was forward-thinking enough to specially preserve some lunar samples so they could be studied as fresh samples when the time came that researchers had better technology to analyze them.

“That’s a pretty remarkable thing that they did,” Dyar said, particularly given the thought at the time that moon landings would become a frequent occurrence in the future. “Somebody in NASA was prescient and decided to set these samples aside.”

Dyar said that many people mistakenly think that the United States brought back “dump trucks of samples back from the moon.” In reality, she said, it is only a few refrigerators’ worth of rock samples.

Of around 2,000 samples that came back from the moon, only six are left unstudied, and only a few of those are pristine and untouched.

To study those samples, teams had to submit detailed proposals to NASA. The first part of the local team’s research will be done at a government lab outside of Chicago, and the second half will take place at UMass Amherst.

“I feel incredibly lucky that we got the money and our proposal was selected,” Dyar said.

The samples are just rocks, at the end of the day, Dyar said. But they also offer a rare research opportunity. And as the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing approaches, they are a reminder of a groundbreaking moment in human history.

“It’s the historical significance that adds the extra panache to it,” she said.