Here’s All the Rocks We Hauled Back From the Moon

The 12 human beings who walked on the Moon collected, catalogued and returned 842 pounds of lunar rock and soil. Each sample has been meticulously documented in NASA's Lunar Sample Catalog.

A grid of photographs showing a variety of different lunar rock samples with rulers and calibration tools.
Some of the photographs of the specimens in NASA ARES' Lunar Sample Catalog. Source: NASA ARES

American astronauts plan to head back to the Moon in the next few years, closing a 50 year gap in human lunar exploration. The three and a half year period (from 1969 and 1972) when American astronauts walked on the Moon yielded a huge amount of science which continues to be studied today yielding new insights. The twelve astronauts who explored the surface of the Moon collected and returned a whopping 842 pounds (382 kilograms) of lunar rocks and soil, which are carefully controlled by NASA and extremely valuable – so valuable that a group of NASA interns stole $20 million worth of the lunar samples in a 600 lb. safe in 2002, but were later busted by the FBI.

When looking at the incredible photos taken from the Apollo missions, you might assume all the rocks are basically the same gray, dusty material that the astronauts galloped across. But a look through this collection of 1,200 samples from NASA’s Astromaterials Research and Exploration Science (ARES) Division shows that these geologic samples are incredibly diverse and full of surprising features.

A photo of a pockmarked dark grey moon rock sitting on a circular metal surface with calibration targets and numbers,
Photo of lunar sample 15556 from Apollo 15. Basalt with Olivine. Source: NASA ARES Apollo Photo S71-43328

Many samples feature beads or layers of glass resulting from the incredible pressure and temperatures of volcanic forces or meteorite impacts on the lunar surface. Others are riddled with “vesicles” or impressions from gas bubbles that were formed in volcanic molten rock. The types of rocks in the lunar sample collection are breccias, basalts or crustal rocks. Four major minerals are prevalent in the samples: olivine, ilmenite, pyroxene and plagioclase.

These samples were a major chunk of the work being done by the Apollo astronauts, and it was extremely dangerous work. Without a protective atmosphere, tiny micrometeorites flying like bullets through space could shoot right through a spacesuit and any time on the surface exposed astronauts to dangerous radiation and cosmic rays. Despite these hazards, 2,196 samples were recorded and collected during 80 hours of work.

The photos in NASA's catalog show the rocks on a flat surface, sometimes with color indicators and a manual catalog counter dialed into the ID of the sample. In most of the photos, you can see a small metal cube (1 cm square) that in addition to indicating scale also indicates the orientation of the sample with single letter inscriptions for North, South, East, West and Top and Bottom. A small vertical subscript mark indicates the bottom.

The information recorded about precisely where each sample was found is incredible. Each sample was photographed in place before being collected. This sort of manual data collection must have been extremely difficult in a spacesuit, in such a colorless and uniform environment.

Many of the lunar samples are on public display in museums around the world. NASA’s ARES has a sample loan program for researchers and schools. You can request the loan of a sample for public display here and K-12 schools (in the U.S.) and universities can request “thin section” samples for research purposes.

Slicing and Dicing

If you need to get up close to these samples and don’t want to go through the trouble of asking NASA for access to one, you can examine a selection of these samples virtually in exquisite detail, both inside and out in your web browser.

In 2013, artist Erkia Blumenfeld approached NASA with the great idea of using the latest imaging technology to create high resolution 3D scans of the lunar rocks in their collection, so more people around the world could examine them in detail. NASA was interested, and funded the effort, named Astromaterials 3D. The “Explorer” interface for this project is executed beautifully, allowing you to rotate and zoom in on the 3D model of each sample (which can be downloaded in high or low resolution). Each sample is accompanied by a narrative with interesting details about its collection and its dimensions and physical properties.

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NASA ARES' Astromaterials 3D Explorer interface. Source: NASA/These 3D reconstructed image data were produced at the Lunar Sample Laboratory Facility for Astromaterials 3D in NASA’s Acquisition & Curation Office and were funded by NASA Planetary Data Archiving, Restoration, and Tools Program, Proposal No.: 15-PDART15_2-0041.

The coolest part is that NASA has also performed CT scans on these samples, revealing the interior makeup of the sample, in thousands of slices, which you can reveal along any axis. The resulting effect is like taking these priceless samples and just cleaving them open with an infinitely sharp blade to see what’s inside. You can even turn on an “analglyph 3D mode” which with the aid of those red and blue paper glasses gives you a nice 3D view of the sample.

The fact that an artist was behind this idea shows, and it is truly one of my favorite interfaces for beautiful public data that I have come across.

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Nerdbox

For this post, I had to download all of the images from the Lunar Sample Catalog, which appears to be running on a Cold Fusion server.

At first, I was going to just extract the photos of the rocks from a huge collection of PDFs from this Sample Compendium which has lots of great info for each sample. I used pdfimages for this which worked great, but then I discovered the sample catalog photos which were the original uncropped pictures shot with a Hasselblad with all the cool artifacts and quirks.

There's a somewhat usable web interface, but I had to collect all of the photo IDs and sample IDs to be able to generate the image download list for the 4,830 hi-res "Ortho" photos. Once I built the list I used curl to download them all in bulk.

At first I thought this would be simple as there's a Lunar API listed, but unhelpfully this didn't include the photo IDs.

But I did scrape all of the Apollo sample data from that API (which is really interesting), and made a CSV which you can grab here.

Using some command line graphics (ImageMagick) to resize and crop the images to make a quilt.

As per usual these days, ChatGPT is a huge help with lots of little utility code that saves me tons of time.
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Thanks for reading!
- Jon Keegan (@jonkeegan)