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Order your Moon rock today!

When we talk about Moon rocks, what do we mean? Not a lunar meteorite. That’s a piece of the Moon that has fallen to earth by natural processes. About 29 such meteorites have been found, including a big one that landed in the Libyan desert in 1999. The fragment now on display in the museum came from that one. Mind you, it didn’t leave the Moon in 1999. In all likelihood, it broke off from the Moon around 4.5 billion years ago, floated around for a while in the vastness of space, got bored and thought, “so what’s Libya’s deal?”

By the way, we know it’s from the Moon because it’s made of the same stuff as Moon rocks. If you think about it, that means we’ve only been able to identify lunar meteorites for a couple of decades, because before the Apollo missions, we actually didn’t know what the Moon was made of. Not completely, anyway.

The only actual Moon rocks humans have are from six Apollo missions between 1969 and 1972, and then trace amounts from unmanned Soviet probes in the ‘70s. We have 842 lbs. in all.

Our rock came from Apollo 15. Astronauts David Scott and James Irwin spent three days on the Moon, rode around in the first lunar rover, and picked up this piece of basalt at a place called Dune Crater. (By the way, you can actually listen to the audio and read the transcripts of Scott and Irwin talking to each other – and Houston – at Dune Crater here.) Astronauts usually photographed rocks in context, using a gnomon for size and color reference, picked them up with tongs, numbered them, and bagged them up.

After the first Moon missions, NASA quarantined rocks (and astronauts) until they could reasonably prove they were safe. This requirement was dropped for Apollo 15, though, since nobody from the earlier missions caught moon madness. Most Moon rocks remain at Johnson Space Center in Houston, where scientists continue to study them. The center’s website offers a virtual tour of its facilities, including cool-sounding places like the Pristine Sample Vault and the Experiment Lab. A few rocks are also held in a remote location in case of a natural disaster in Houston (like that ever happens).

Moon rocks have yielded some important discoveries. We now know the moon and earth are related, having formed from a common reservoir of materials. We know the moon once had a magma ocean. The lack of atmosphere on the moon also means its crust changes very, very little over time. That means we can study Moon rocks to learn about the early evolution of solar system.

Final note: there is a place on JSC’s website where you can request lunar samples for “both destructive and non-destructive analysis in pursuit of new scientific knowledge”. You can also request samples of meteorites, stardust, and cosmic dust, among other things. Good luck on the application, though.


The Big Blowup, Pulaski, and wildfire ecology

How about a little Idaho wildfire history to soothe your lungs on this glorious, smoky day?

Hurricane-force winds swept through the Idaho panhandle on August 20, 1910. “The wind was so strong,” said US Forest Service Ranger Ed Pulaski, “that it almost lifted men out of their saddles.” In what became known as “The Big Blowup,” the wind fanned a series of manageable forest fires into a towering behemoth that eventually swallowed 3 million acres, several small towns, and at least 85 people across Idaho, Montana, and Washington. By some accounts, the Great Fire of 1910 remains the largest wildfire in US history.

The entrance to the mine shaft used by Pulaski in the 1910 fire. Pulaski said he was unconscious when he heard one of his men remark that the boss was dead. In true legend form, Pulaski woke up, said “like hell he is”, and began crawling out.

The Big Blowup left a lasting impact on firefighting. For one, Ranger Pulaski, from Wallace, became a legend. When flames southwest of the town became too great to contain, he rounded up 43 firefighters and led them into a mine shaft under low visibility. He then hung blankets across the entrance and used his hat to scoop water from the mine and onto the blankets. The men eventually fell unconscious, but all except five survived the night and later crawled blindly to safety. The common firefighting tool combining an axe and an adze is named the Pulaski in his honor.

The museum’s fire bell, which rang from the Idaho Falls Fire Department’s downtown station starting in 1906.

1910 also had a major impact on how wildfires were fought – and not necessarily for the better. The US Forest Service (USFS) was a shaky, five-year-old organization then, and it won acclaim for its efforts to fight the fire and prevent it from spreading further. However, USFS leaders soon thereafter instituted a policy of immediate suppression of all fire — if possible, by 10am on the day one was discovered — believing they needed to completely vanquish all fire to survive as an organization. The service began working to discredit and suppress academics who argued that fire plays an important role in forest ecology. Of course, we now know those academics were right. Without occasional smaller, natural fires,  which trees can often survive, too much fuel can accumulate in forested areas. Fires under those conditions can grow larger and be more destructive to trees and soil. The USFS eventually reversed its position and now focuses on prevention and careful containment, even sometimes using fire to achieve certain objectives. But they probably could have saved much more of our land by just letting nature take its course all along.

So as you cough and wheeze your way to your car this evening and squint through tears up at the ominous blood moon bearing down, just know that it could be a lot worse. I guess that’s the lesson.


Why can’t I explain the total eclipse?

Having a hard time explaining your total eclipse experience to friends who missed totality? You’re not alone. Dr. Kate Russo witnessed her first total solar eclipse in Europe in 1999 and was enthralled. “I felt time stop,” she says, but she couldn’t figure out why. After traveling to Madagascar in 2001 to see another, she felt the same euphoria, even though she knew what to expect in the sky.

Russo, a trained clinical psychologist, decided then that she had experienced a powerful human event that deserved further study. She began conducting research, talking to people all over the world who had seen multiple eclipses, assuming that they would be better equipped to process the emotions they felt. Gratifyingly to Russo, the responses she received turned out to have real consistencies. She sums up the key common feelings in an acronym: SPACED.

  • Sense of wrongness. Russo says this often begins about five minutes before totality, when light and shadows truly begin acting in ways they don’t normally.
  • Primal fear. Just before totality, we know intellectually what’s coming, but it still feels ominous.
  • Awe. A sense of deference or insignificance in the presence of something greater.
  • Connection. Feeling tied to that something bigger, whether it’s the vastness of the universe, nature, or deity.
  • Euphoria. This is especially present in the final moments of totality.
  • Desire to repeat.

So there’s your answer – there just aren’t many other human experiences that carry all of these emotions. Russo says the best analogy might be – as heavy as it sounds – becoming a parent, simply because it’s a profound natural experience that causes people to forever see things from a different perspective. Other, more modest comparisons include sharing a great rock concert with thousands of fans (you just had to be there) or taking LSD. Russo says those don’t quite cut it, though, because they’re man-made experiences, so the primal-ness can be harder to come by. She’s also quick to note that those who get high hoping to enhance the eclipse experience typically find the opposite to be true, and they have trouble recalling details afterward.

Russo spoke at the Museum of Idaho on August 30. She has now seen 11 total solar eclipses, although two of them – in China and the Faroe Islands – were clouded over. She watched this last one atop a ski hill in Teton Village. She has authored three books on the human eclipse experience and still enjoys collecting others’ stories. You can reach her at beingintheshadow.com.


NASA TV at the Museum of Idaho

Dr. James Green, NASA Director of Planetary Science, watches and discusses the total solar eclipse of August 21, 2017, outside the Museum of Idaho with NASA TV’s Gay Yee Hill. Dr. Green also explains NASA’s launching of dozens of balloons with scientific experiments, which use the eclipse to simulate atmospheric conditions on Mars. The Museum of Idaho in Idaho Falls was one of NASA’s four official eclipse viewing sites nationwide.

Crowds at the Museum of Idaho in awe of the Solar Eclipse

NASA Goddard Space Flight Center’s Joe Witte, Museum of Idaho staff, and crowds gathered at the museum discuss the total solar eclipse on August 21, 2017, in a report from EastIdahoNews.com. The report highlights some of the shadows, planets, corona, and other unique sights visible during the eclipse, as well as how the museum came to be designated as an official NASA eclipse viewing site.