Fifty years ago, NASA astronauts stepped off Apollo 11 and delivered what instantly became the most precious rock on Earth: nearly 50 pounds of dust and rock fragments from the surface of the moon.

Suddenly the wildest dreams of geoscientists had come true, as tiny pieces of the first rocks collected on another celestial body made their way to labs across the U.S. for analysis.

“You cannot overstate the value of actually having these samples to study. It was transformative,” said Nicolas Dauphas, professor in the Department of Geophysical Sciences, whose pioneering research studies the isotopic makeup of rocks from Earth and the moon. “Before Apollo 11, the moon was made of cheese.”

But even after half a century of intensive study and discoveries—many of them at the University of Chicago—the moon remains mysterious. Scientists still don’t have a definitive picture of how the moon formed, or even how old it is.

“It’s amazing to still be asking this,” said Nicole Nie, a graduate student working on Apollo samples in Dauphas’ lab.

Later this year, scientists from UChicago and affiliated Argonne National Laboratory hope to get some more clues when they receive a one-of-a-kind package—rocks from the Apollo 15, 16 and 17 missions that NASA sealed for study by future generations. Scientists at Argonne will use powerful X-rays from Argonne’s giant particle accelerator to examine the molecular makeup of the lunar rocks.

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Image courtesy of NASA