Thursday, September 22, 2011

Tour of the Lunar Lab

                I don’t really remember when, but at some point last year I realized how different the geology of Mars, Venus, and the Moon are from our home planet, not just their lack of plate tectonics, but also the strange features and processes that seem to exist, separate from our own experiences. At the same time, I was researching graduate schools and trying to figure out what I would want to study when I got there. Lucky for me, somehow those three factors converged and I learned that it was possible to major in Planetary Science, so I changed my plans for the future, and decided to study the planets. Now I don’t know exactly what I will study, but there are enough unanswered questions to go around, so I’m not really worried, I just want to learn one of those questions.
                With a new goal for the six plus years once I graduate, I started looking for opportunities to participate in real research, and while on a whim I started looking at possible NASA internships. While I do have faith in my own abilities, that faith does not extend to my resume because it was not that impressive when I started applying to different programs. I have never had any experience working in a scientific field and I go to a very small school that is not known for its STEM fields; however, I applied anyways, but I honestly didn’t expect to hear back from them. They did call back, first for an interview, and then I was emailed about a great opportunity during the summer.  I worked with Crew Earth Observations, building a database of astronaut photography of volcanoes.  So I spent this last summer in Houston, working a dream job.
                Let me first say, if you are a STEM major and you do not have any opportunities on the table for next summer, look up NASA SOLAR and apply for something. NASA has set up a one stop shopping initiative for interns, thus you can fill out one application and apply for as many opportunities as you possibly can. It was a wonderful experience, and the Education office there does an amazing job to provide lectures and learning experiences beyond just what you worked on. However, by far my favorite opportunity was a suited up tour of the Lunar Sample Lab.
                I had the opportunity to gain first-hand experience of the tools and processes used to examine and study extraterrestrial materials, and I was amazed by the thorough processes utilized to prevent contamination. First, we gave up our cameras so they could be sterilized, and then we went into the first room which we had to put booties on before we came in. Then we went through a series of rooms each time upping the amount of protection we had before we finally reached the lab. Each room is pressurized slightly more than the one before it, so any contaminants floating in the air would be blown out of the room when the door was opened. Once inside the Lab, everything was inside containment boxes, so a pair of thick rubber gloves provided even more protection to the samples. The most striking thing to me was the intense protection given to every sample.  They are hermetically sealed to prevent contamination during storage, and the samples are not opened until they are safely sealed in one of the containment boxes, and only then could scientists examine them. In addition, every bit of every rock has to be kept track of, and unless the researcher has express permission to perform a destructive test, the weight of the sample at the beginning must match the weight of the sample at the end. The people who run the lab and gave us our tour were both highly professional and very friendly; at one point we had a conversion about mineralogy of the rocks and the processes that formed them. In addition, they explained that the unique processes on the surface of the moon (such as micro-meteorite impacts) cannot be duplicated in laboratories which led into a joke about the moon hoax people. If I could get an internship in that lab next summer I would jump on the opportunity in a heartbeat; it was an amazing opportunity.

And now pictures to prove I was there! (Really I was, I didn’t Photoshop any of them)
Hands on experience with a containment box

Tools inside the containment box

This is from memory, but I believe this is the Genesis Rock

Observing the Genesis Rock under a microscope

Basalt from the Moon

Close up on another sample of basalt

More Lunar basalt

The black cube in the bottom right corner is used to show the original orientation of the sample on the Moon!

Three Pieces of Lunar Basalt
This is a station used to cut the samples

If you can't tell, this tour made me excited

Well I didn't use Photoshop, so technically I told the truth

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