Materials Research Strength Earns UVA Engineering Chance to Examine Apollo 17 Lunar Sample

It was shortly after midnight on December 7, 1972, when a groggy-eyed little girl followed her parents and siblings to the living room of their suburban home 30 miles north of Detroit and sat in front of a large box of a TV that was buzzing to life.

Outside the moon was waxing gibbous, a perfect landing spot for a new set of space invaders to arrive a few days later from the blue planet 238,900 miles away.

Catherine Rivers was just 5 years old when Apollo 17 lit up the dark around the launch complex at Kennedy Space Center, the 363-foot-tall Saturn V rocket riding its moon boosters out of Earth’s atmosphere.

It was the first and only manned Apollo mission to launch at night, and the last to send humans to the lunar surface.

Catherine sat mesmerized by the television screen, not knowing that her life, and her future career at the University of Virginia School of Engineering, would be tied to this historic mission and the secrets it would hold for nearly 50 years.

Moon Dust

As a child, Catherine Dukes watched the liftoff of Apollo 17, not knowing that her life would be tied to this historic mission and the secrets it would hold for nearly 50 years.

Catherine Rivers Dukes’ surface characterization lab at UVA Engineering is 12 feet by 12 feet. The walls are painted white, and light blue sound-dampening panels hang around the room to combat the consistent humming of fans and pumps. A workbench strewn with tools and aluminum foil is nestled into one corner, and a new, state-of-the-art imaging X-ray photoelectron spectrometer occupies the entire other half of the room. The instrument gives scientists a precise look at the composition of the outermost atomic layers on a material’s surface and how these atoms are bonded together.

The spectrometer looks like a cross of science fiction and mythology, with pipes, gauges and tubing radiating from a stainless-steel Medusa. Cables the size of your leg are attached to it and run to a cabinet filled with power supplies and controllers. Staring at the computer monitor, Dukes punches in a sequence of numbers on the keyboard and brings the spectrometer to life.

There’s a hum as the instrument’s valves open and close; very slowly, a space-like vacuum is achieved so that a material to be investigated inside the instrument can be irradiated by a narrow X-ray beam, resulting in photoelectrons being ejected from the material’s surface. The kinetic energy of these wayward electrons will be measured, and calculations can be made to determine what type of atoms appear within the outermost 5 nanometers, an area one million times smaller than the eye of a needle. This gives researchers a precise understanding of what a material’s surface ― the very edge where the material meets the environment ― is made of.

  • UVA Engineering researcher Catherine Dukes inserts vacuum tube into XPS machine

    UVA Engineering research scientist Catherine Dukes inserts a vacuum tube into the School's state-of-the-art imaging X-ray photoelectron spectrometer to get a precise look at the composition of the outermost atomic layers on a material’s surface and how these atoms are bonded together.

  • UVA Engineering researcher Catherine Dukes inserts vacuum tube into XPS machine

    UVA Engineering research scientist Catherine Dukes inserts a vacuum tube into the School's state-of-the-art imaging X-ray photoelectron spectrometer to get a precise look at the composition of the outermost atomic layers on a material’s surface and how these atoms are bonded together.

  • UVA Engineering researcher Catherine Dukes inserts vacuum tube into XPS machine

    UVA Engineering research scientist Catherine Dukes alayzes the composition of the outermost atomic layers on a material’s surface using the School's state-of-the-art imaging X-ray photoelectron spectrometer.

Dukes is now a research scientist at UVA Engineering and directs the highly productive Laboratory for Astrophysics and Surface Physics in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering. Dukes is also the resident expert for the X-ray photoelectron spectroscopy instrument for UVA’s Nanoscale Materials Characterization Facility, which provides industry and university partners with a wide array of expertise and equipment to analyze the structure, composition, morphology and other characteristics of all types of materials.

In the years since Apollo 17 blasted off, Dukes has taken quite a journey of her own.

“Looking back, I hadn't ever considered being a scientist. My parents are not scientists. My father was a community college teacher; he taught American history, and my mother was a physical therapist.”

As a girl, Dukes was captivated by Ayn Rand, a popular philosopher of the time and author of “The Fountainhead” and “Atlas Shrugged.” Rand called her philosophy “objectivism” and defined it as "the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute." Rand advocated for laissez-faire capitalism, a system in which transactions are private and free from government interference.

With Rand’s perspectives in mind, Dukes headed to the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, to study business and finance. A talented student, she was placed in the honors program that required study in sciences. That led her to take a course in high-energy physics, forever changing the trajectory of her life.

“It was so exciting, so interesting. I think just the logic behind it, and the thought process behind how to understand how the universe was created, and what things were made of, really influenced me deeply.”  

As a new physics major, Dukes initially studied elementary particle physics. But after arriving at UVA for her master’s degree, she began working with a surface physicist in engineering physics with an interest in planetary science, studying the interaction of radiation with surfaces. Their work prompted a call from a senior scientist at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, Roy Christoffersen, who wanted their help in understanding more about how the moon’s surface has been impacted by the solar wind and meteoritic collisions. In particular, NASA wanted to know more about how solar ions ― like protons and helium ― damage the surface of lunar grains, changing their physical structure and chemistry.

That call launched her on a mission of discovery about the lunar surface and a relationship with NASA that continues to this day.

NASA photo of the Apollo 17 mission traverse map

NASA map of the Apollo 17 lunar mission at Taurus-Littrow Valley, on the southeastern edge of the Sea of Serenity. The numbers represent the sites, geology stations, where the crew stopped to take samples. No.3 represents the spot at Lara Crater, later renamed Ballet Crater, where Apollo 17 commander Eugene "Gene" Cernan collected the core sample that UVA Engineering researcher Catherine Dukes will examine.

The Apollo 17 lunar module plopped down with two crew members in the moon’s Taurus-Littrow Valley on the southeastern edge of the Sea of Serenity on December 11, 1972. The site was chosen because of its proximity to hills and lowland areas as well as potential volcanic vents, impact craters and perhaps even a mountain slide.

On the second day of their three-day mission, commander Eugene “Gene” Cernan and geologist Harrison “Jack” Schmitt, the first lunar astronaut-scientist, woke with NASA blaring “Ride of the Valkyries” by Richard Wagner, a throwback to the astronauts’ days as undergrads at the California Institute of Technology where it’s tradition to play the opera at top volume on the mornings of final exams.

NASA knew this might be the last human mission to the moon, and there was a lot on the agenda for the day. More than 20 kilometers of traversing areas to the south and west of the landing site lay ahead, with four major sampling sites and eight minor ones. The hope was to collect samples that might lead scientists and researchers to learn more about the moon’s relationship with Earth and perhaps answer questions about the origins of the universe and life itself.  

After finishing up their first stop at Geology Station 2 at the Nansen crater, the pair bounded off in their lunar roving vehicle for Lara Crater, named by Schmitt for Boris Pasternak's heroine from “Dr. Zhivago,” and, Schmitt said, “honoring all the inspiring women of history, known and unknown." This site was of high interest to NASA. Could there be water frozen here? Maybe volcanic vents were nearby? Then there was the crater itself. What secrets would it reveal?

  • Earth as seen from the Apollo 17 orbital space ship

    A crescent Earth is seen over the horizon of the moon during the Apollo 17 mission in December 1972, the last manned mission to the lunar surface.

  • Astronaut Eugene Cernan op

    Astronaut Eugene “Gene” Cernan operates the lunar rover vehicle during a traverse of the lunar surface during the Apollo 17 mission to the moon.

  • NASA astronaut Jack Schmitt rakes up rocks from the lunar surface during the last manned mission to the moon

    Harrison “Jack” Schmitt, the first lunar astronaut-scientist, rakes up rocks from the lunar surface during the last manned mission to the moon.

While Cernan grabbed a pair of hollow rods he would pound into the moon’s surface to collect core samples, Schmitt took off with a rake and bags to collect rocks and lunar dirt. Normally, crews worked together in all aspects of sampling, but time was an issue, with several other stations to get to on that day.

Back in Houston, mission scientist Robert “Bob” Allan Ridley Parker was giving directions and keeping the team on task.

With a hammer pulled from his shin pocket, Cernan pounded the rods, each 42 centimeters long, into the lunar surface with the flat side of his hammer. Meanwhile, Schmitt was struggling to rake up rocks and put them in the storage bags.

“Well, the first core has gone down pretty good, Bob,” Cernan said.

Okay, great,” said Parker.

Okay, I think I got it. I think I got it, Bob,” Cernan said, replacing his hammer. “If you see it, Bob, it's full. See that?”

Yards away, Schmitt’s frustration was growing. He was fumbling with bags and rake and tripping over himself.

Be advised that the switchboard here…has been lit up by calls from the Houston Ballet Foundation requesting your services for next season,” Parker joked.

Schmitt replied by doing a couple of one-footed hops on his right foot with his left leg out flexed out behind him in his best ballet pose, then lost his balance and fell. In that moment, Lara lost her namesake crater; NASA officially renamed it Ballet Crater.

Okay, Bob, the long can is sealed, and I guess nobody knows what's in it but me,” Cernan said.

No one ever will, probably,” Parker replied.

“And I may not even tell,” Cernan quipped.

The rod used to take a core sample from Ballet Crater during Apollo 17 lunar mission

The rod used to extract the core sample that UVA Engineering research scientist Catherine Dukes will examine protrudes from the lunar surface. The rod held two sampling containers. The lower core sample was put in a vacuum-sealed container to contain the volatiles found on the moon’s surface and has never been unsealed since it Apollo 17 commander Eugene "Gene" Cernan collected it in December 1972.

The long tubes of sealed moon have been carefully stored in a vacuum environment at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston since returning to Earth December 19, 1972, waiting for technology to advance enough for scientists to examine the sample at the nanoscale.

In total, the six manned Apollo missions brought back 842 pounds of lunar material (rocks, orange glass beads ejected by lunar volcanoes, core samples and dust). That accounted for 2,200 individual samples, all but six of which have been studied over the years. Of those six, two were frozen; one was stored in helium to determine how well it could be preserved that way; and three, including the core samples taken by Apollo 17, were vacuum-sealed.

In March 2019, nearly 50 years after NASA successfully landed humans on the moon, they announced nine teams would study several of these last remaining samples, including the vacuum-sealed core sample Cernan heaved out of the moon’s surface. NASA awarded a total of $8 million to the teams for this research. Dukes is part of a team led by Chip Shearer, senior research scientist and manager of the Secondary Ion Mass Spectrometry Laboratory at the Institute of Meteoritics at the University of New Mexico. The team is studying the group of highly mobile atoms and molecules, called volatiles, found in the soil to better understand lunar geology and evolution. The team, which includes original Apollo 17 astronaut Jack Schmitt, will examine both the upper core and the sealed lower core before sending the material off to other teams who will study other aspects of the core samples.

Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison H.

Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison H. "Jack" Schmitt, lunar module pilot and trained geologist, is photographed inside the lunar module on the lunar surface following the third extravehicular activity of his mission.

“There's a lot of reasons why we might choose to look at the material now. One of them is that we have all kinds of new instrumentation,” Dukes said. “We can make great isotopic measurements; we're much better at looking at amino acids. We have instruments for looking at surfaces of materials. Electron microscopy has really matured. The information we'll get will be orders of magnitude better than earlier measurements, and allow us to really understand what's going on.”

For now, Dukes is busy perfecting a “vacuum suitcase” that will keep the lunar samples pristine during transit. The suitcase is actually a metal cylinder about nine inches long that is specially designed to provide a lunar-like vacuum environment to retain intrinsic volatiles, which are essentially gasses trapped near the surface of the lunar grains. The suitcase couples directly to the UVA X-ray photoelectron spectrometer instrument while maintaining ultra-high vacuum. She is making tweaks to the suitcase’s seal and pumping system.

When she gets the call from NASA this fall or early next year, she will drive from UVA’s Engineering School to the Lunar Sample Laboratory Facility in Houston. Because of the batteries needed to keep the suitcase pressurized, she can’t fly. A NASA scientist will then carefully deposit samples from different sections of the core into her suitcase, maintaining the original pristine condition of the sample. And then she will drive back to begin what is expected to be a two-year study, although it could be extended depending on what the team discovers.

Dukes will use the X-ray photoelectron spectrometer to specifically identify and quantify volatiles, such as sulfur, potassium, phosphorus and water that exist within the rims of dust-sized moon particles. She will look for changes in surface composition to better understand geologic events taking place over the moon’s history.

  • UVA Engineering researcher Catherine Dukes analyzes data during the calibration of the university's XPS

    UVA Engineering research scientist Catherine Dukes analyzes data during the calibration of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering's state-of-the-art imaging X-ray photoelectron spectrometer. 

  • UVA Engineering researcher Catherine Dukes examines a sample of lunar material from a previous mission

    UVA Engineering research scientist Catherine Dukes examines a sample of lunar material from a previous mission and study.

  • NASA photo of the lunar surface taken during the Apollo 17 mission.

    NASA photo of the lunar surface taken during the Apollo 17 mission.

“The volatiles are all kinds of things that are important, actually, in the formation of life.”

Scientists including Dukes are hoping to find traces of water and material that could be used if an outpost manned by future astronauts is constructed on the moon for deeper explorations of space.

“And then the other thing is, of course, looking for evidence of life,” she said. “But I mean, I'm not expecting to find a Martian at some point on the surface.”

Dukes still marvels that more than 50 years ago, engineers and scientists were smart enough to engineer a way to the moon and back with computers fractionally as powerful as the cell phones in our pockets. They had the vision to preserve samples, confident that knowledge and tools to analyze the samples would grow exponentially. They believed that hidden secrets might not be revealed in their lifetimes, but that we needed to be prepared.

“Space science is one of the most fundamental areas of research. It’s a science that tells us something about our universe - tells us how we came into being. It tells us how our planet was formed, how other planets were formed, how our solar system could be formed. We learn about how materials are processed,” Dukes said. “You can learn about biology, you can learn astrobiology, how very small organisms could come into being.

“The material that the astronauts brought back is really a national treasure. It tells us so much about the moon, but it also tells us about ourselves and what we can accomplish.

Gene Cernan with an American flag planted on the moon during the Apollo 17 mission

Apollo 17 commander Eugene "Gene" Cernan poses with an American flag planted during the last manned mission to the moon.

It’s hard to imagine the emotions Gene Cernan may have felt in 1972 as he stood on the moon, looking at the planet he and Schmitt were about to return to many thousands of miles away.

His voice crackled over the radio to Houston: “As I take man's last step from the surface, back home for some time to come - but we believe not too long into the future - I'd like to just [say] what I believe history will record: that America's challenge of today has forged man's destiny of tomorrow. And, as we leave the moon at Taurus-Littrow, we leave as we came and, God willing, as we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind. Godspeed the crew of Apollo 17."

NASA astronaut Jack Schmitt on the lunar surface during Apollo 17 mission

In total, the six manned Apollo missions brought back 842 pounds of lunar material (rocks, orange glass beads ejected by lunar volcanoes, core samples and dust). That accounted for 2,200 individual samples, all but six of which have been studied over the years. Of those six, two were frozen; one was stored in helium to determine how well it could be preserved that way; and three, including the core samples taken by Apollo 17, were vacuum-sealed.