Shooting for the moon
  • STEM

A waning crescent marks the arrival of the black travel bag. Lifted with difficulty, a silver security case rises. Combination entered, seals broken - nitrogen rich air rushes over frozen time. Moon rocks have landed.

To mark the quinquagenary of humanity’s first visit to our 4.5 billion year old companion, we petitioned the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) to invite ambassadors from Luna (and beyond) to visit LEH. The Moon and Earth are closer to being twins than any other planetary system in the solar system, so this was always going to be something of a family reunion.

Months later, after signing our contract with the STFC and having mandatory security checks, our delegates arrived. The celestial pilgrims were housed in a secure and confidential location to which only the Senior Technician held the key: and she had been sworn to secrecy!  NASA’s huge acquisition costs and refusal to sell had left some samples literally priceless.

Between 1969 and 1972, six manned Apollo missions successfully landed on the Moon. The Astronauts collected some surface material and transported the samples home. The Apollo samples, preserved in acrylic disks, were not the only celestial visitors that arrived in the silver case.

Native legends in Argentina tell of a mass of super pure iron that fell from the sky thousand of years ago in a place they called Piguem Nonralta. Our box contained a fragment of what the Spanish renamed the Campo de Cielo ("Field of Heaven") meteorite.

One meteorite had recently had its Martian heritage confirmed by the Curiosity Rover. A selection of meteorites contained spherical shapes that slowly form in the depths of space. Our students carefully observed these “chondrules” with USB microscopes, and investigated their ancient magnetic fields with handheld magnaprobes.

LEH’s young scientists examined red feldspar granite (an igneous rock); limestone and slate (sedimentary rocks); quartzite and garnet mica schist (metamorphic rocks), and iron pyrite (a mineral crystal). Lifting the tektites (formed by cataclysmic impact of meteorites) left one with the unsettling thought that once these materials had fallen as molten rain.  Lethal bolts from an angry heaven! But the imilac pallasite, with its reassuringly beautiful yellow-green olivine, returned our thoughts to the serenity and majesty of the universe.

During the visit, Physics teachers incorporated samples of space rock in their lessons.  Students explored the processes that developed their structure and studied them using a variety of lab equipment.  They considered the shape, mass volume and origin of the material. Our students also undertook exercises that simulated the work of researchers monitoring outer space for potentially disastrous cosmic encounters.

Two open sessions were offered at lunchtimes during the week-long event.  It was wonderful to see nearly 200 staff and pupils from the Senior School, Junior School and Hampton getting hands on with the space exhibit.

The new moon left a faded lacuna over Hanworth Road.  This seemed a fitting metaphor for the departure of our visitors. The moon was no longer in the sky.  It resided in a silver case, locked in a secret cupboard in the science department at Lady Eleanor Holles.

By Mr Brittain - STEM Co-ordinator and Teacher of Physics