50 years ago, scientists found a lunar rock nearly as old as the moon

Excerpt from the March 30, 1974 issue of Science News

A black and white image of Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison Schmitt standing next to a lunar boulder on the moon.

In this composite image, Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison Schmitt stands next to a lunar boulder. A sample collected from such a boulder proved to be nearly as old as the moon itself.

Gene Cernan/NASA

Cover of the March 30, 1974 issue of Science News

A rock from the moon’s early days — Science News, March 30, 1974

Taking its last shot at the prize, the Apollo program came through. A major goal of the scientists examining samples brought back from the lunar surface was to find a rock virtually as old as the moon itself, a relic more than 4.5 billion years old.… After five visits to the moon, the last-ditch effort, Apollo 17, finally paid off.


Apollo-era lunar rocks are still revealing secrets of the moon’s youth. For instance, the moon’s magnetic field — if it existed — lasted for the satellite’s first 500 million years or so, a recent analysis suggested (SN: 8/28/21, p. 7). Another sample of moon rocks, collected in 2020 by China’s Chang’e-5 mission, is providing new tidbits from later time periods. Those rocks suggest the moon was volcanically active for longer than previously thought, with lava flowing as recently as 2 billion years ago (SN: 11/6/21, p. 6). China’s Chang’e-6 mission, slated to launch in May, might deliver the first rocks from the moon’s farside. That material could explain why the near and far sides appear to be geologically distinct.

Physics writer Emily Conover has a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Chicago. She is a two-time winner of the D.C. Science Writers’ Association Newsbrief award.

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