For a brief period in the 1960s and 1970s, 12 people ventured all the way to the surface of the Moon. The accomplishment at the time was hailed as a political victory over the Soviet Union, but as decades have passed the landings have taken on more symbolic meaning with NASA — a time of optimism, of science and of the American spirit.
The last lunar landing was Apollo 17, which took place on Dec. 11, 1972. Commander Eugene Cernan and lunar module pilot Harrison Schmitt did three moonwalks in the Taurus-Littrow valley, scoping out the highlands to try to get a geologic sense of the area. Among their more memorable findings are orange soil. You can see some pictures from their sojourn below.
This week, Canadian astronaut Jeremy Hansen is on his way to a remote island in the Canadian Arctic. We realize this sounds like the opening episode for Survivor, but his purpose up there is more scientific: to conduct field geology.
Geology work, and training for sample collection is not as easy as simply picking up whatever you see on the ground. It’s important to get a range of rocks that represent the geology of the area. You also need to photograph and otherwise document the area in such a way that geologists can learn more about how it was formed, among other duties.
A trained observer can come to preliminary conclusions while wandering around in the field, and possibly change his or her sample-gathering strategy in accordance with that. The Apollo moon missions were replete with examples of this, with one of the more famous ones perhaps being when Harrison Schmitt (who, unlike his colleagues, had a Ph.D. in geology) stumbled across some orange soil during Apollo 17. This was probably evidence of an ancient fire-fountain of lava on the moon.
But Schmitt certainly wasn’t expecting to see that when he walked on the surface. Check out his reaction around 1:50 in this video:
Hansen will join a Western University group to study “impact cratering processes while learning methods and techniques for conducting geological fieldwork that can be applied to sites beyond our planet,” stated the Canadian Space Agency. To make it feel more space mission-like, the group will be working with limited supplies and support.
Geology training isn’t important just on the ground, but also in observing from space. As Hansen points out on this video, from time to time astronauts on the International Space Station are called upon to observe features from their orbital perches. If they understand the processes behind what they see, their descriptions, videos and photos will be more scientific.
Hansen will stay on Devon Island until about July 25, studying impact crater processes along with the rest of the team. Updates should be available on his Twitter feed as well as through the Canadian Space Agency.
And by the way, Canada was also useful to astronauts during the Apollo years. One famous geology site was at Sudbury, Ont. This website highlights the activities of the Apollo 16 crew, which was looking at craters in the area.