Going Beyond Earth From Inside The Classroom

Humans have always pioneered and looked for new places to explore and settle. Past trips have taken us and our technologies to the moon and allowed us to see things we never imagined. Knowing our own solar system is a crucial part of beginning investigations outside our galaxy. 

Higher education, through its very mission of inquiry and research, plays a role in outer space exploration through programs, courses, and research offered on campuses. Just at SUNY, Binghamton University, University at Buffalo, SUNY Geneseo and Stony Brook University are all part of The National Space Grant College and Fellowship Program. This program was designed to broaden the base of universities and individuals contributing to and benefiting from aerospace science and technology and ultimately contribute to the development and utilization of space resources. This is only one of the ways that SUNY has joined in on space exploration.

For each of us, our path to research and understanding of the unknown starts somewhere unique. Perhaps it is through a professor, another student, or a college staff member. This semester, Dr. Nicholas Warner of SUNY Geneseo is stoking curiosity about space for many students, using a rare collection of lunar rocks.

Dr. Warner, an alum of both SUNY Geneseo and University at Buffalo, has been a professor in the department of Geological Sciences at SUNY Geneseo for three years. Before Geneseo, he was a NASA postdoctoral fellow at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, California. There, he worked on Mars-related research and was a team member on the Opportunity  rover and InSight. Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport, or InSight, is a NASA Discovery Program mission that plans to place a single geophysical lander on Mars to study its deep interior. It goes beyond Mars and many hope InSight will help us figure out how different planets have been shaped.

At Geneseo, Dr. Warner still works on missions and projects related to the exploration of Mars. Geneseo, among other SUNY schools, offers a wide variety of astronomy and geology courses to its students. Warner teaches two upper level courses: Planetary Geology and Remote Sensing. The study and exploration of planetary surfaces in general usually falls under geology.

According to Dr. Warner, geology is a vast and important part of space exploration, but perhaps one that needs to be extended further. All those looking to land on another rocky planet need to have more than basic understandings of geology, including terrestrial geology, to be prepared to understand their surroundings.

“There was only one scientist who traveled with the Apollo astronauts during their missions to the Moon. His name was Harrison Schmitt (Apollo 17) and he was a classically trained field geologist. The other Apollo astronauts were trained by geologists to do geology during their mission,” Dr. Warner said.

Bringing outer space to our classrooms

Having the chance to study lunar rocks is not an opportunity afforded to all schools. The Apollo samples at Geneseo are on loan from NASA, at the request of the College, which had to provide extensive explanation as to how they are being used.

The Apollo lunar rock set contains samples from all Apollo missions, with the exception of Apollo 11. These missions were established to go beyond just putting man on the moon. They included efforts to create new technologies to meet other national interests in space, achieve preeminence in space exploration for the United States, carry out scientific exploration of the moon, and develop human capability of working in a lunar environment. The set on loan at Geneseo includes 14 samples of regolith (loose, granular geological material) and lunar rocks that have been sliced so thin that you can view the minerals and textures through a microscope.

"The Moon and Mars are more important to us as laboratories for understanding how our own planet and potentially life formed and evolved."

- Geneseo professor Nicholas Warner

And there is an awful lot to learn from these rock samples. The Moon's surface is incredibly old, with rocks that date closer to 4.5 billion years. The Moon's surface is therefore representative of processes that were occurring early on in our Solar System, processes that also affected Earth. There are very few rocks on Earth that date to this time period because surface weathering, erosion, and plate tectonics obscure the ancient record.

The samples collected from the Apollo mission are pristine due to the vacuum-like atmosphere on the moon, today, which makes the moon essentially a dead planet. With little gravity and all gas stripped away by solar wind, the moon seems to be frozen in time and a perfect place to study geology and to begin human space exploration.


Collected by Apollo 17 astronauts, this mare basalt was the last rock ever collected from the moon. It dates back 3.7-3.8 billion years.

 

To infinity and beyond?

With all this research involving interplanetary geology and environmental studies, how likely would it be for us to relocate to a geologic neighbor like the Moon or Mars? According to Dr. Warner, not likely. Permanent residency on any planetary body would be difficult and expensive, not to mention extremely dangerous. Both the Moon and Mars have surface conditions that would be incredibly harsh to human life, not to mention the lack of necessary resources, such as water.

In Dr. Warner’s opinion, “It is a far easier thing and a far better thing to try to maintain the incredibly hospitable and rare planet that we have here than to look to other planets for our survival. The Moon and Mars are far more important to us as laboratories for understanding how our own planet, and potentially life, formed and evolved.”

So looking into the future, while it does not seem feasible to head to our neighboring bodies for a new home, they teach us a lot about the origins of our own planet and potentially what we can expect in the years to come. The ongoing research being done at SUNY and elsewhere will continue to provide us with new knowledge and open up new possibilities. As we unearth more information about the Moon and Mars, we come closer to finding the information we need to truly explore the final frontier and preserve our home planet.

Published December 2016