From Moon Rocks to Space Dust: Berkeley Lab’s Extraterrestrial Research

Artist’s rendering of a large meteorite impact on Earth. (Credit: NASA)

Specialized equipment, techniques, and expertise attract samples from far, far away

BERKELEY, Calif. (Berkeley Lab PR) — From moon rocks to meteorites, and from space dust to a dinosaur-destroying impact, the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) has a well-storied expertise in exploring samples of extraterrestrial origin.

This research – which has helped us to understand the makeup and origins of objects within and beyond our solar system – stems from the Lab’s long-standing core capabilities and credentials in structural and chemical analyses and measurement at the microscale and nanoscale.

Berkeley Lab’s participation in a new study, detailed June 11 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (see related news release), focused on the chemical composition of tiny glassy grains of interplanetary particles – likely deposited in Earth’s upper atmosphere by comets – that contain dust leftover from the formative period of our solar system.

That study involved experiments at the Lab’s Molecular Foundry, a nanoscale research facility, and the Advanced Light Source (ALS), which supplies different types of light, from infrared light to X-rays, for dozens of simultaneous experiments.

An artistic rendering of NASA’s Stardust mission during its approach to comet Wild 2. (Credit: NASA/JPL)

More than a decade ago, NASA’s Stardust spacecraft mission, which had a rendezvous with comet 81P/Wild 2, returned samples of cometary and interstellar dust to Earth. Ever since, researchers have been working to study this material in detail.

In one study, published in 2014, scientists used X-rays and infrared light to study particles from this mission. In another study, published in 2015, researchers studied two comet particles using several high-resolution electron microscopes and a focused ion beam at Berkeley Lab’s National Center for Electron Microscopy (NCEM), which is now part of the Molecular Foundry. They found that the microscopic rocks, named Iris and Callie, had formed from molten droplets that crystallized rapidly in outer space.

Moon dust and rock samples photographed at Berkeley Lab. (Credit: Berkeley Lab)

Interplanetary dust particles were also the focus of a 2014 study that involved NCEM and the ALS. That study explored pockets of water that were directly formed on the dust particles via irradiation by the solar wind, and their findings suggest that this mechanism could be responsible for transporting water throughout the solar system.

In other studies, the ALS has been used to reveal liquid water and complex organic compounds like hydrocarbons and amino acids in meteorites – one of which may have traveled here from a dwarf planet – and ALS scientists have been working with NASA to study the microscopic makeup of asteroids to better understand how meteoroids break apart in Earth’s atmosphere.

Pete Hayes, the son of Paul Hayes, a former Lab employee who had worked to prepare a moon rock from the 1969 Apollo 11 mission for display at an area science center, recalled viewing the moon rock at the Lab. The rock had been handled in a sealed glove box to prevent contamination. “My dad had designed this three-prong stand (for the rock) with a holding screw on the top that sat in a Teflon-sealed, bell-shaped glass container,” Pete Hayes recalled. (Credit: Pete Hayes)

The Lab also had a role in analyzing dust from moon rocks collected in the Apollo 11 and Apollo 12 moon missions – the late Melvin Calvin, who was a former associate director at the Lab, participated in a study of carbon compounds in lunar samples that was published in 1971.

And in the 1970s, Berkeley Lab Nobel laureate Luis Alvarez teamed with his son, Walter Alvarez, then an associate professor of geology at UC Berkeley, to unravel the mystery of the dinosaur die-off some 65 million years ago. The Alvarezes, working with Lab nuclear chemists Frank Asaro and Helen Michel, used a technique known as neutron activation analysis to precisely measure an unusual abundance in the element iridium in sedimentary deposits that dated back to the time of the dinosaurs’ disappearance and the mass extinction of many other species.

Iridium, which is rare on Earth, was known to be associated with extraterrestrial objects such as asteroids, and later studies would confirm that a massive meteorite impact is the most likely cause of that ancient extinction event.

A blue crystal recovered from a meteorite that fell near Morocco in 1998. The scale bar represents 200 microns (millionths of a meter). Such crystals, which have been studied at Berkeley Lab, have been found to contain liquid water and complex organic compounds. (Credit: Queenie Chan/The Open University, U.K.)

Besides studying materials of extraterrestrial origin, Berkeley Lab researchers have also worked to synthesize and simulate the chemistry, materials, conditions, and effects found outside of Earth – from lab-treated materials that are analogous to exotic minerals that formed in space from the presence of corrosive gases in the early solar system to simulated mergers of neutron stars and black holes, and the creation of simulated Martian meteorites.

The Advanced Light Source and Molecular Foundry are DOE Office of Science User Facilities.

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory addresses the world’s most urgent scientific challenges by advancing sustainable energy, protecting human health, creating new materials, and revealing the origin and fate of the universe. Founded in 1931, Berkeley Lab’s scientific expertise has been recognized with 13 Nobel prizes. The University of California manages Berkeley Lab for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science. For more, visit www.lbl.gov.

DOE’s Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit science.energy.gov.