China’s lunar sample contains glassy beads and impact fragments

The Chinese lunar mission Chang’e 5 made history late last year when it returned the first sample from the moon in more than 40 years. Taken from a region of the moon with very young rocks where the Chang’e 5 lander was based, the sample has been analyzed and found to contain some “exotic” fragments.

Ph.D. student Yuqi Qian of the China University of Geosciences presented some early findings from analysis of the sample at the Europlanet Science Congress 2021 conference this week, revealing more about this rare and precious moon dust.

Panoramic image taken after sampling of the lunar surface by Chang’e-5. The four dark trenches in the lower right corner of this image are where samples were collected. Abundant centimeter-sized boulders exist on the surface around the Chang’e-5 landing site. CNSA (China National Space Administration) / CLEP (China Lunar Exploration Program) / GRAS (Ground Research Application System)

The large majority of the sample, at around 90%, comes from the area immediately around the lander. The location is on the near side of the moon, near the western edge, in an area called the Northern Oceanus Procellarum. Most of the materials are the loose, dusty soil called regolith which covers the moon’s surface. Most of this is made up of volcanic rocks which were created by lava eruptions.

That’s what would be expected from a moon sample. But the remaining 10% of the sample has some intriguing oddities, which the researchers describe as “exotic” chemical compositions. This includes beads of glassy material which seem to have originated from ancient volcanic vents. These vents are located more than a hundred miles from the landing site and could have thrown fountains of material across the moon.

Image of the Chang’e-5 sample “CE5C0400” from the Moon’s surface. This fraction of lunar materials returned to Earth by Chang’e-5 weighs nearly 35 grams and was collected by a robotic arm. CNSA (China National Space Administration) / CLEP (China Lunar Exploration Program) / GRAS (Ground Research Application System)

There are also fragments that seem to have been thrown up by impacts, but because the rocks in this region are relatively young, these impacts must have happened relatively recently. These fragments could have come from as far away as 800 miles from the landing site, according to the researchers.

“All of the local and exotic materials among the returned samples of Chang’e-5 can be used to answer a number of further scientific questions,” said Qian. “In addressing these we shall deepen our understanding of the Moon’s history and help prepare for further lunar exploration.”

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