Inside the Collection

What’s the link between Apollo 16, a Soviet Moon mission and the Powerhouse Museum?

Apollo 16 Space landing 1972
40 years ago, Apollo 16 landed in the Descartes region of the central lunar highlands. Image Courtesy NASA

This might sound like the set-up for a joke, but there really is a connection between the museum, NASA’s Apollo 16 mission and the USSR’s Luna 20 lunar sample recovery mission.

Forty years ago, in April 1972, Apollo 16 became the fifth human mission to land on the Moon. As previous Apollo missions had tested out the techniques and equipment for lunar exploration, gradually increasing the time spent on the lunar surface and the distance covered to collect geological samples, the Apollo 16 astronauts could focus on in-depth exploration of the Moon’s geology. The landing site selected was located in the Descartes Formation, a highland area of the Moon that some geologists thought resembled a region that might have been created as a result of volcanic activity. Earlier Apollo missions (11 and 12) had landed in the lunar ‘mare’-plains areas created by the upwelling of lava from the Moon’s interior- or visited sites associated with the Mare Imbrium (Sea of Rains) basin, a massive meteoric impact crater (Apollo 14 and 15).

By targeting the highland region of Descartes, Apollo 16 was looking to explore a region untouched by the Imbrium impact, which would hopefully show evidence of other geologic processes, especially volcanism, at work on the Moon. However, as it turned out, the geological samples from Apollo 16 did not provide any evidence of volcanic activity, but rather showed that the highlands areas were actually formed by meteoric impacts.

During the first of their three Extravehicular Activities (Moonwalks), the Apollo 16 crew of John Young, Mission Commander and Charles Duke, Lunar Module Pilot, visited Plum Crater, 30 metres north-west of the lunar module’s landing site, where they collected lunar sample 61016 from the crater’s eastern rim.
At 11.7kg, this Moon rock was the largest individual rock sample returned by the Apollo missions and is better known to the public by its nickname “Big Muley”, which it was christened in honour of the leader of the Apollo 16 geology team, Bill Muehlberger. Sample 61016 is a breccia (a rock composed of broken fragments of rocks and minerals held together by a cementing substance) and has been determined to be around 3.9 billion years old, making it older than more than 99% of the surface rocks on Earth.

After it was brought to Earth by the Apollo 16 mission, “Big Muley” was broken up into a number of sub-samples for research and some that were designated specifically for educational display use. One of these display samples, 61016,116 (011), weighing 89 grams, was loaned to the International Space University (ISU) Space Studies Program, when it was held in Adelaide in 2004. At the conclusion of the program in Adelaide, the ISU generously offered to arrange with NASA to transfer the loan to the Powerhouse Museum and it has been on display in the Space exhibition since that time. The museum’s piece of “Big Muley” is one of the largest lunar samples on public display in Australia and links the Powerhouse to the Apollo 16 mission.

Lunar sample 61016,116 (011) encased in lucite for display.
Lunar sample 61016,116 (011) encased in lucite for display.

You can see this Moon rock, on long-tern loan from NASA, in the Space exhibition.

But what’s the connection to that Soviet Moon mission? When the USSR’s secret lunar landing program failed to beat Apollo 11 to the first human landing on the Moon, the Soviet Union quietly shelved the program, insisting publicly that it had never been in a ‘race’ with the United States and that it preferred to explore the Moon with robotic probes. To bolster this claim, the USSR sent several robotic sample retrieval missions to the Moon between 1969 and 1976, three of which were successful, as well as two roving vehicles remotely controlled from Earth, (Lunokhod 1 and 2: you can see a replica of Lunokhod 2 in the Space exhibition).

Replica of Soviet Lunokhod 2 Moon roving vehicle
A replica of the Soviet Lunokhod 2 Moon roving vehicle on display in the Space exhibition. After being on loan to the museum for several years it was purchased from the Russian Academy of Sciences in 1997.

Luna 20, the second successful sample return mission was launched in February 1972, just 2 months before Apollo 16-and like the American mission it was targeted for a highland area, in this case the Apollonius Highlands, near the Mare Fecunditatis (Sea of Fertility)

An extendable drilling apparatus collected 55 grams of lunar ‘soil’ and deposited them in a sealed capsule in the return vehicle located at the top of the Luna 20 lander, which rocketed the sample back to Earth. The material collected by Luna 20 proved to be very similar to the highland rock samples returned by Apollo 16, thus confirming that mission’s findings and providing further evidence against volcanism in the ancient lunar highlands.

The Luna 20 landing stage, 2010
The Luna 20 landing stage, 2010 Image Courtesy: NASA

In March 2010, NASA’s current lunar probe, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter , photographed the Luna 20 landing stage.

So there you have it, the link between Apollo 16, Luna 20 and the Powerhouse Museum. Today is April 12, the 51st anniversary of the first human spaceflight, when Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was launched into orbit. Around the world, Yuri’s Night events will be held to celebrate the achievements of human spaceflight in exploring beyond our home planet and it’s not too late to join in the celebrations. There are public Yuri’s Night events planned in several places around Australia, so check the website above for details, but even if you can’t make one of these events, celebrate spaceflight by raising a glass to Yuri and all the space travellers, human and robotic, who have followed in his footsteps.

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