The Scientific Legacy of Apollo

By  Ian Crawford
(Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences,
Birkbeck College, London)

Fig. 1. One of the last two men on the Moon: Harrison Schmitt stands next to a large boulder at the Apollo 17 landing site in December 1972. (NASA).

This December marks 40 years since the last human beings to set foot on the Moon, Gene Cernan and Harrison “Jack” Schmitt of Apollo 17, left the lunar surface and returned safely to Earth. In the three and a half years between Neil Armstrong’s ‘first small step’ in July 1969 and the departure of Cernan and Schmitt from the Taurus-Littrow Valley in December 1972, a total of twelve astronauts explored the lunar surface in the immediate vicinity of six Apollo landing sites.

Fig 2. The Apollo landing sites. Note their restriction to the central part of the nearside – there is a lot more of the Moon to explore! (Image: NASA).

The total cumulative time spent on the lunar surface was 12.5 days, with just 3.4 days spent performing extravehicular activities (EVAs) outside the lunar modules. Yet during this all-too-brief a time samples were collected, measurements made, and instruments deployed which have revolutionised lunar and planetary science and which continue to have a major scientific impact today.

Fig. 3. A view across the Apollo 17 landing site in the Taurus-Littrow Valley. The Apollo 17 Lunar Roving Vehicle is in the foreground, and the Lunar Module is in the middle distance about 300 m away. The black box in the foreground is one of eight explosive packages deployed to provide data for the lunar seismic profiling experiment which measured the thickness of regolith and the underlying lava in the Taurus-Littrow Valley (NASA).

In their cumulative 12.5 days on the lunar surface, the twelve Apollo moonwalkers traversed a total distance of 95.5 km from their landing sites (heavily weighted to the last three missions that were equipped with the Lunar Roving Vehicle), collected and returned to Earth 382 kg of rock and soil samples, drilled three geological sample cores to depths greater than 2 m, obtained over 6000 surface images, and deployed over 2100 kg of scientific equipment.

Fig 4. Jim Irwin next to the Apollo 15 LRV with the 4.6 km high Mt Hadley in the background; note the sample bags attached to the rear of the LRV (NASA).

These surface experiments were supplemented by wide-ranging remote-sensing observations conducted from the orbiting Command/Service Modules.

Fig. 5.The Scientific Instrumentation Module (SIM) bay of the Apollo 15 Command/Service Module (CSM). On Apollo 15 the SIM included mapping cameras, a laser altimeter, and ultraviolet, X-ray and gamma-ray spectrometers (NASA).

 Probably the greatest scientific legacy of Apollo has resulted from analysis of the 382 kg of rock and soil samples returned to Earth. One of the key results has been the calibration of the lunar cratering rate. Only by comparing the density of impact craters on surfaces whose ages have been obtained independently by laboratory analyses of returned samples is it possible to determine the rate at which meteorite impacts have created craters on a planetary surface. Analysis of the Apollo samples (supplemented by those obtained by the Soviet Union’s three Luna robotic sample missions) has enabled this to be done for the Moon, which remains the only planetary body for which such a data-set exists. Not only has this facilitated the dating of lunar surfaces from which samples have yet to be obtained, but it is used, with various assumptions, to estimate the ages of cratered surfaces throughout the Solar System from Mercury to the moons of the outer planets.

Another important result of Apollo sample analysis by seo services uk has been the evidence provided for the origin of the Moon. In particular, the discovery that lunar materials have compositions broadly similar to those of Earth’s mantle, but that the Moon is highly depleted in volatiles compared to the Earth and has only a small iron core, led to the current view that the Moon formed from debris resulting from a giant impact of a Mars-sized planetesimal with the early Earth. It is very doubtful that we would have sufficient geochemical evidence usefully to constrain theories of lunar origins without the quantity and diversity of samples provided by Apollo, and indeed these samples are still being actively exploited for this purpose.

Fig. 6. The current theory of the Moon’s formation from debris produced by a giant impact on the early Earth is largely based on the geochemical analysis of samples collected by the Apollo missions (image: Wikipedia Commons).

Beyond this, the Apollo samples have been vital to our understanding of the Moon’s own geological history and evolution. While lunar geology may at first sight appear to be a relatively parochial area of planetary science, it is important to realise that the Moon’s surface and interior retain records of planetary processes which will have occurred in the early histories of all the terrestrial planets, such as the formation of cores and crusts. In all these respects the Moon acts as a keystone for understanding the geological evolution of all the rocky planets.

Fig. 7. Fragments of Apollo 12 soil sample 12023 at the Lunar Sample Laboratory at the Johnson Space Center, being selected for a study of lunar volcanism in 2009. Forty years after they were collected, Apollo samples like these are still being used for scientific investigations (photo: I.A. Crawford)

In addition, Apollo samples of the lunar regolith have demonstrated the importance of the lunar surface layers as an archive of material which has impacted the Moon throughout its history. These include records of solar wind and cosmic ray particles, and meteoritic fragments. Extracting meteoritic records from lunar regolith samples is especially important for planetary science as it potentially provides a means of determining how the flux and composition of asteroidal material in the inner Solar System has evolved with time.

Last, but not least, the Apollo samples have been used to calibrate remote sensing investigations of the lunar surface. The visible, infrared, X-ray and gamma-ray spectral mapping instruments carried by a host of recent orbital missions to the Moon have produced a wealth of information regarding the chemical and mineralogical nature of the lunar surface. Although these orbital missions post-date Apollo, the reliability of their results largely depends on their calibration against known compositions at the Apollo landing sites. Without the ‘ground truth’ provided by the Apollo samples, it would be difficult to have as much confidence in the results of these remote sensing measurements as we do.

 In addition to study of the Apollo samples, many other areas of scientific investigation were also performed by the Apollo missions, especially geophysical investigations of the Moon’s interior. Key results included the discovery of natural moonquakes and using them to probe the structure of the crust and mantle, geophysical constraints on the existence and physical state of the lunar core, and measurements of the flow of heat from the Moon’s interior. Although these data are over thirty years old, advances in interpretation means that they continue to give new insights into the interior structure of the Moon. For example, only last year an apparently definitive seismic detection of the Moon’s core, and strong evidence that, like the Earth’s, it consists of solid inner and liquid outer layers, was made by a re-examination of Apollo seismic data.

Fig. 8. Apollo 14 seismometer deployed on the lunar surface; the silvery skirt provided thermal stability. These instruments, also deployed at the Apollo 12, 15 and 16 landing sites, constituted the Apollo passive seismic network which remained active until 1978 and yielded valuable data about the interior of the Moon (NASA).

Looking over the totality of the Apollo legacy, I think one could reasonably make the case that Apollo laid the foundations for modern planetary science, certainly as it relates to the origin and evolution of the terrestrial planets. Arguably, the calibration of the lunar cratering rate, and its subsequent extrapolation to estimating surface ages throughout the Solar System, could alone justify this assertion. If one also considers the improvements to our knowledge of lunar origins and evolution, and the records of solar wind, cosmic rays and meteoritic debris extracted from lunar soils, it is clear that our knowledge of the Solar System would be greatly impoverished had the Apollo missions not taken place.

 However, it is also clear that Apollo did little more than scratch the surface, both literally and figuratively, of the lunar geological record. With only six landing sites, all at low latitudes on the nearside, it is clear that much remains to be explored. Therefore, as we pass the 40th anniversary of the last human expedition to the Moon, there are good scientific reasons to start planning for a return.

Fig. 9. Artist’s concept of astronauts supervising a drill on the Moon. Returning humans to the lunar surface later in the 21st Century would facilitate larger scale exploration activities than was possible with Apollo, and will further increase our knowledge of lunar and Solar System evolution (artwork: NASA).


Ian Crawford is based in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, Birkbeck College, London, and is a member of the MoonZoo science team. This blog article is based on a longer article published in the December 2012 issue of the Royal Astronomical Society journal Astronomy and Geophysics.

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