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Moon rocks and anniversaries

This summer marks the start of a three-year-long 40th anniversary celebration of NASA's Apollo lunar landings. The celebration started July 20 with Apollo 11-listed on many calendars as "Moon Day".

The event continues with Apollo 12's 40th anniversary on Nov. 19; it then resumes in 2010 through 2012 with the 40th anniversaries of the Apollo 14 through 17 lunar landings. Let's hope that by Apollo 11's 50th birthday, the U.S. will be well on its way with sending humans back to the Moon and beyond.

In terms of our nearest neighbor in space, Apollo has helped scientists paint a more complete picture of the Moon. Rock samples, instrument data records, and photography contributed to a better understanding of our rocky companion. Still, many questions remain unanswered.

Within days of the return of lunar rock and soil samples, researchers began tackling the mysteries of the Moon. In January 1970, nearly 1,000 space scientists from 10 nations assembled at NASA's Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, Tx. This conference of "lunatics" focused on the presentations of 142 principal investigators who examined Apollo 11 rock and dust samples between July and December 1969.

Here are a few of the Apollo 11 discoveries announced by investigators during that momentous gathering:

•The Moon is about 4.6 billion years old. The age of the Moon is identical to the Earth.

•The Moon was extremely hot in the past. In addition to a period of intense bombardment, the Moon was also volcanic. Lava rocks at Tranquility Base are similar to lava rocks from Hawaii.

•Apollo 11 astronauts observed transient lunar phenomena (or "outgassing") flying over the crater Aristarchus; this TLP event indicates that the lunar interior is still molten.

•Two percent of the lunar surface is composed of organic-rich carbonaceous chondrite material. The carbon-rich stuff is most likely derived from meteorites. Many scientists believe space organics contributed to the evolution of life on Earth.

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