Are some Apollo "moon rocks" really from the Earth?

At least one of NASA’s “moon rocks” is known to be from Earth:

The Dutch national Rijksmuseum made an embarrassing announcement last week that one of its most loved possessions, a moon rock, is a fake — just an old piece of petrified wood that’s never been anywhere near the moon…

The rock was given as a private gift to former prime minister Willem Drees Jr in 1969 by the U.S. ambassador to The Netherlands, J. William Middendorf II, during a visit by the Apollo 11 astronauts, Armstrong, Collins and Aldrin, soon after the first moon landing…

Former U.S. ambassador, Mr Middendorf was unable to recall the exact details of how the rock came to be in the U.S. State Department’s possession. It is known that NASA gave lunar rocks to over 100 countries in the 1970s, but when the rock was displayed in 2006 a space expert told the museum he doubted any material would have been given away so soon after the manned lunar landing.

Researchers from the Free University of Amsterdam immediately doubted the rock was from the moon, and began extensive testing. The tests concluded the rock was petrified wood. U.S. embassy officials were unable to explain the findings, but are investigating.

Antarctica is littered with moon meteorites, and the U.S. actively collects them: “the U.S. Antarctic Search for Meteorites program (ANSMET)… spend six weeks of every year living in tents on the ice, searching Antarctica for meteorites.”

That’s interesting because NASA’s website says of Wehnher Von Braun — the former Nazi who headed Hitler’s rocket program and later America’s space program — “Dr. Von Braun participated in an expedition to Antarctica [in] 1967”.

What was the designer of the U.S. space program’s Saturn V rocket and director of the Marshall Space Flight Center doing in Antarctica two years before his rocket sent men to the moon? Taking a vacation?

NASA clearly put astronauts into Earth orbit. NASA also clearly sent unmanned probes to the moon. But did NASA really send astronauts to the moon’s surface and bring them back? Holes in the evidence make it a legitimate controversy. I know smart people who believe we did and smart people who believe we didn’t. I’m not convinced either way.

Recent conflicting news about “moon rocks” increases my skepticism. Two years ago, scientists told us Apollo moon rocks suggest the moon had about as much water as the Earth when it formed:

Water has been found conclusively for the first time inside ancient moon samples brought back by Apollo astronauts….

The water was found inside volcanic glass beads, which represent solidified magma from the early moon’s interior. The news swept through much of the scientific community even before being detailed in the journal Nature this week.

“This really appears to have changed the rules of the game,” said Robin Canup, astrophysicist and director of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo., who was not part of the team that made the discovery. “The assumption has been that the moon is dry.”

Scientists have long assumed the moon was dry because of its violent birth roughly 4.5 billion years ago. The leading theory holds that a Mars-sized planet smashed into Earth and tore off molten pieces that eventually formed into the moon. Most scientists thought that any water in the developing lunar body would have vaporized and been lost to space.

“If there was a lot of water in the early moon, then that is new for sure,” said Ben Bussey, a planetary scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory who also was not involved in the new study….

Saal’s group examined lunar samples brought back from the Apollo missions of the 1960s and 1970s. The glass beads range in color from green to yellow-brown to red, depending on their elemental chemistry.

Such beads formed from droplets of molten lava that spewed from fire fountains reaching down deep within the primitive lunar interior…. Saal and his collaborators then used modeling to estimate how much water originally existed in the magma within the moon’s interior, knowing some water would have escaped the molten droplets as a gas on the surface. That led to estimates that the glass beads may contain 745 ppm of water — strikingly similar to solidified lava that came up from the Earth’s upper mantle through undersea vents (my emphasis).

In recent days, though, a sophisticated new study has shown that the moon did NOT have much water when it formed:

A new analysis of Apollo rocks backs the old idea of a waterless world.

For decades after the Apollo astronauts touched down on the desolate lunar surface, the moon was considered to be parched. But that view began to change in 2008, when researchers found water inside tiny spheres of lunar volcanic glass at concentrations calculated to be similar to those found in some terrestrial volcanic rocks.

Now, researchers led by Zachary Sharp at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque say measurements of chlorine in a dozen Apollo samples suggest that the moon’s interior has always been extremely dry, containing 10,000 to 100,000 times less water than Earth’s.

How can we reconcile substantial water trapped inside “lunar” glass beads with strong evidence that the moon was drier than bone? Perhaps the glass beads are not lunar. Perhaps they’re — as the scientists reported — “strikingly similar to solidified lava that came up from the Earth’s upper mantle through undersea vents” because they ARE solidified lava that came up from the Earth’s upper mantle through undersea vents.

It’s at least possible Von Braun’s team collected moon rocks in Antarctica but misidentified some terrestrial rocks as lunar rocks.

Posted by James on Monday, August 09, 2010