• Welcome to the homepage for Astromaterials 3D: A virtual library for exploration and research of NASA’s space rock collections! [Credit: NASA/Astromaterials 3D]

  • The Apollo Lunar Collection homepage displays an interactive view of the Moon where you can select an Apollo landing site and begin your journey discovering a selection of Moon rocks from each of the six surface missions. [Credit: NASA/Astromaterials 3D]

  • The Antarctic Meteorite Collection homepage displays an interactive view of the inner solar system where you can select an origin, like Vesta or Mars or the asteroid belt and begin your journey discovering a selection of space rocks from each origin. [Credit: NASA/Astromaterials 3D]

  • A view of Apollo Lunar Sample 65035,0 in the Astromaterials 3D Explorer application, looking into the rock’s interior XCT imagery. [Credit: NASA/Astromaterials 3D]

  • Each rock has its own “sample details page” where you can read its unique story. [Credit: NASA/Astromaterials 3D]

  • The NASA Pins feature on the Explorer application shares regions of interest on the surface and interior of each sample that were selected and described by NASA scientists. [Credit: NASA/Astromaterials 3D]

  • Every Rock Tells a Story

    On July 20, 1969, just minutes after becoming the first human to step onto the surface of the Moon, Apollo 11 Astronaut Neil Armstrong collected the very first sample of lunar rock and soil. Lunar Sample 10022 is a small rock returned from the Moon by Apollo 11 and was part of the contingency sample that was immediately collected at the start of the first EVA. 10022 was scooped up with the surrounding lunar soil and other small rocks that were directly nearby. It was a historic moment, being the very first human-collected sample from an extraterrestrial world, and the first sample of the Apollo lunar surface missions.

    Portions of the story of lunar sample 10022 are unusual because it has a texture unlike the other basalts that were collected during Apollo 11 surface mission. Apollo 11 basalts as a group are considered to be outliers compared to basalts collected during the Apollo surface missions, as they were found to have a much higher quantity of rare earth elements than other missions. Large, perfectly round vesicles visible throughout the rock indicate that there was a high concentration of gasses present when 10022 formed from the erupting magmatic material. Multiple studies have also noted an abundance of rare gasses present in 10022 due to its longer than average time at the lunar surface This Moon rock is thought to have crystalized out of its magmatic source around 3.6 billion years ago.

    10022 is classified as a High-Ti, High-K Ilmenite Basalt and was formed from magmatic material and volcanic processes. High-titanium basalts on the Moon differ greatly from basalts on Earth, as the lunar basalts have a strikingly higher percentage of titanium in them than the ones on our own planet. While the Apollo collection has many high-titanium lunar basalts this basalt type is not representative of the whole lunar surface. Compositional mapping of the lunar surface by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, Lunar Prospector and Clementine missions have found that high-titanium basalt is localized to specific areas on the Moon but is otherwise rare globally. 10022 has the distinction of being the first rock among the High-Ti basalts in which the new mineral known as Armalcolite, named after the three mission astronauts, Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins, was found.

    While the precise story of how 10022 found its way to the surface of the Moon is still a mystery, it is likely that it was transported by the force of an impact event. What we do know, is that once it landed on the lunar soil, it lay there exposed to the cosmic rays from our home star as well as deep space for around 500 million years.

    -by Erika Blumenfeld

  • Every Rock Tells a Story

    Antarctic Meteorite Sample MIL 07411 is a tiny rock, just under 2 centimeters long on its longest side, but the story of this precious space rock stretches back nearly 4.6 billion years. MIL 07411 is part of an extremely rare group of meteorites known as CB chondrites and to date only a couple of dozen have ever been found. Yet, the evolving tale of their formation has given scientists a phenomenal view into the very earliest moments of the birth of our solar system: CB chondrites contain within them the first solids that condensed and accreted out of the solar nebula after our Sun burst into being.

    MIL 07411 is further sorted into a type of CB chondrite that is course-grained. If you look at the interior images of MIL 07411 in the Astromaterials 3D Explorer, you will see large white-colored nearly circular inclusions. These large grains are made entirely of zoned metal, some of which are as large as 10 mm in diameter. CB chondrites can be comprised of up to 60- to 80-percent metal. These metal nodules are particularly special and distinct from other metallic meteorites, for it is thought that these zoned spherical metal grains condensed directly out of the early solar nebula. The fact that these types of primordial metal nodules have chemical zoning expected for metal condensing out of solar nebular gas (i.e., the composition of the Sun) is why researchers believe they condensed out of the nebular disk rather than having formed from protoplanetary collision: the zoning indicates that these metal droplets cooled very slowly. If these metal grains had been greatly reheated in an impact event, the zoning would have been erased by the metamorphism. MIL 07411 did, however, experience some localized heating on impact, high enough to melt the original material between the metal grains but not the metal grains themselves.

    MIL 07411 also has chondrules. Chondrules, the spherule-shaped silicate droplets accreted out of the solar nebula within the first few million years after the birth of our solar system. Unlike the slow cooling rates of the zoned metal grains, these Chondrules commonly form with exceptional rapidity. Thus, CB chondrites contain within them these two divergent stories of thermal conditions that occurred in two different parts of the solar nebula. CB chondrites recount the phenomenal history of the origin of chondritic material and the transport of this material across time, providing important constraints for researchers on both their chemical and physical processes.

    New studies have also found that MIL 07411 contains multiple extraterrestrial amino acids. Theories suggest that carbonaceous meteorites, including CB chondrites, may have delivered these important biochemical constituents to Earth during the Late Heavy Bombardment approximately 4.1 to 3.8 billion years ago. These organic compounds are thought to have provided a key source of prebiotic material required for the development of life on Earth.

    -by Erika Blumenfeld

  • Every Rock Tells a Story

    When Astronaut John Young picked up Lunar Sample 60019 during the Apollo 16 surface mission, he described the Moon rock to Ground Control, saying “I just picked up another breccia, but it was very interesting because it had some very dark clasts in it, and it was primarily a white matrix.” Even on the surface of the Moon, this rock stood out as particularly interesting.

    Lunar Sample 60019 tells the story of a dynamic, crater-producing impact event with riddles that have yet to be answered. This Moon rock, which weighed 1887 grams when it was collected, is a Regolith Breccia, which means it is an impact-consolidated conglomerate comprised of lunar soil and older rock fragments that were mixed and fused together during the chaotic heat and pressure of a meteoroid hitting the surface of a planetary body. Evidence of such a large heat-producing impact can be seen on the surface of 60019 in the thick vesicular melt-glass coating that covers one side of the rock. Tiny impact craters from micrometeorites are visible across the opposite side of 60019 and point to a long history of being exposed to space while lying on the Moon’s surface.

    Regolith, which makes up 60019’s matrix, is a complex mixture of material that covers the surface of the Moon ranging in thickness from five to ten meters thick. Regolith is comprised of pieces of the lunar crust that have been pummeled and broken down by billions of years of various types of impacts, from large fragments of asteroids to the smallest of cosmic dust particles and even solar wind. These planetary and interplanetary forces have created the Moon’s soil, which has textures that can be as fine as dust or sand and contain multi-millimeter to multi-centimeter sized rocks and pebbles. Its maturity is dependent on when it was first formed, therefore regolith varies across the Moon and tells the story of more local processes.

    Even though this sample has never been chemically dated, nor have any of its clasts, it is considered to be one of the oldest regolith breccias collected during the Apollo 16 surface mission and is thought to have formed somewhere between 3.85 and 4 billion years ago, which is why 60019 is further classified as an Ancient Regolith Breccia. Yet, 60019 has abundant clasts, some of which have been studied and some of which have yet to reveal their stories. Large white clasts permeate the sample, some of which have been found to be feldspathic and poikilitic, indicating a magmatic origin. Two small basalt clasts, also originating from volcanic processes, were also identified—perhaps these were the dark clasts that John Young was referring to when he first picked up 60019 on the Moon.

    -by Erika Blumenfeld

  • Every Rock Tells a Story

    The discovery and study of ureilite meteorites, like Antarctic Meteorite Sample EET 87720, has given emphasis to a phenomenally variable and dynamic process of planet-forming in the early solar system, leaving a trail of mysteries yet to be revealed. It is thought that the ureilite parent asteroid of this extremely rare group of meteorites was a small carbon-rich planet body that had only partially differentiated, meaning that it had been heated to the point that mineral-types began separating themselves into layers. A fully differentiated rocky planet has a metallic core, silicate mantle, and a silicate crust, like the Earth, which has enabled certain geologic and biologic processes to evolve on our planet. However, planetary or asteroidal bodies that were only partially differentiated never evolved a metal core, and so the bulk of its metal-rich components were still mixed in the upper layers of the asteroid.

    Antarctic Meteorite Sample EET 87720 is an unusual and rare ureilite and is classified as being polymict, meaning it is brecciated and comprised of multiple lithologies— a diverse mixture of rock fragments and regolith from both the original parent asteroid and the impactors. What is particularly mysterious about this breccia is that the fragments of rock within it do not all originate from the same asteroid parent but contain distinct pieces of different early planetoids. The story that is revealed from such a discovery dazzles the mind, as it points to a catastrophic impact, where the original parent body was broken apart and then partially reassembled to form child asteroids comprised of new or evolved types of material. Thus, it is thought that polymict ureilites were formed from the near surface material of the original asteroid mixed with the impacting asteroid. Research indicates that this process occurred quickly, in geologic terms, so that original trace elements and oxygen isotopes were preserved.

    What is particularly unusual about the ureilite parent asteroid is that it seems to have been formed in such a way as to retain multiple primordial signatures of oxygen isotopes, providing a view into the specific conditions in which this ancient asteroid and its components originally formed in the early solar system. Studies have discovered that EET 87720 contains suessite and xifengite, rare iron silicide minerals that can only form in strongly reducing environments and must have been present in the original ureilite parent body prior to the cataclysmic impact.

    Ureilites are additionally unusual because they often have high abundances of diamonds, which provides an understanding of the extreme pressure these rocks were exposed to during the impact event that formed them. Perhaps even more curious is that the content of noble gasses, especially within the diamonds, is exceptionally high, which indicates that despite the heat and pressure these rocks must have experienced from the impact, the heat was not high enough to deplete these noble gas isotopes. EET 87720 was also found to contain microgranitic clasts. Granite forms in very specific conditions and while it is abundant on Earth, it is thought to be rare in the rest of the solar system. EET 87720’s granitic inclusions thus offer new insight into the formation of granitic material in the early solar system.

    The genesis of ureilite meteorites has still yet to be fully understood, and EET 87720 is waiting to have more of its remarkable secrets revealed.

    -by Erika Blumenfeld

  • Graphic animation showing the journey of Apollo Lunar Sample 65035, a hand-sized rock collected during the Apollo 16 surface mission being collected from the Moon and brought back to Earth, comparing the original photographic documentation images in 1972 verses our incremental high-resolution imagery covering the entire surface of the rock to create our research-grade 3D models. [Credit: NASA/Astromaterials 3D]

NASA Astromaterials 3D:

In 2013, I approached NASA with a proposal to make their collections of lunar and meteorite samples—and the wondrous stories they reveal—more accessible to people worldwide.

I’ve been curious about rocks since I was small, always sensing the mysteries held within them. In 2011, my longstanding love of rocks was intensified during an artist-in-residence sailing expedition around the Scottish Isles, where I encountered the majestic basalt pillars and Lewisian gneiss the region is known for, inspiring me to deepen my knowledge of geologic and planetary processes. Ask any geologist about the processes they study, and they will nearly always end their explanation with the same mind-dazzling statement: …but, the story is in the rock. I began to think of rocks as scrolls of knowledge that reveal stories of primordial formation. Eventually, a persistent question arose for me: Might it be possible to hold a rock in one’s hands that tells the story of the whole cosmos?

While the question to hold such a rock in one’s hands is poetic in nature, it is also true that rocks from space collectively tell the story of how our solar system and planet evolved but they also hold presolar materials giving us a glimpse into the space environment before our solar system existed. I’ve come to think of rocks as scrolls of knowledge, passed down through the cosmic, planetary, and geologic ages, that tell these stories of primordial formation. They are objects of wonder and deep time, and they hold within them the cosmochemical stories of connection across the cosmos.

My inquiry into how far back in time the story of a rock might be able to take me eventually sparked an idea, inspiring me to approach NASA in January 2013 to propose the Astromaterials 3D project. To my amazement, they were interested, and I began working on a proof-of-concept study, building an incredible team at the Astromaterials Research & Exploration Science Division (ARES) at NASA Johnson Space Center. By June 2014, my team and I had produced the first-ever 3D model of a Moon rock. In December 2015, we were awarded an official NASA research grant to pursue the production of the Astromaterials 3D project, for which I am both the Science-Principal Investigator (Sci-PI) and Project Lead.

Astromaterials 3D is an information-rich, interactive virtual library of NASA’s collections of Apollo Lunar and Antarctic Meteorite samples that was created as an exploration tool for scientific research and the curious public. My artistic intent with the Astromaterials 3D project has been to provide a novel and dynamic way to make NASA’s collections more accessible to everyone–so that the incredible formation stories held within these rocks that span our solar system, might spark wonder, awe, and inspire research across any field. My ultimate hope is to give you the opportunity to hold–virtually–these remarkable rocks in your own hand.

NASA’s Astromaterials Acquisition and Curation Office, part of the ARES Division, houses NASA’s collections of extraterrestrial samples. These collections include samples from the Moon, asteroids, comets, solar wind, and the planet Mars. Being both scientifically and culturally significant, the samples require a unique conservation approach. Government mandate dictates that NASA’s Astromaterials Acquisition and Curation Office develop and maintain protocols for “documentation, preservation, preparation, and distribution of samples for research, education and public outreach” for both current and future collections of astromaterials. In this way, the Astromaterials 3D project expanded NASA’s unique conservation approach and updated NASA’s sample documentation protocols through the use of novel technologies, some of which my team and I invented to achieve the goals of the project.

It took nearly eight years of development to successfully produce research-grade 3D virtual models of NASA’s space rock collections and create the Astromaterials 3D Website & Explorer Application. The project represents a phenomenal meeting between the fields of art, science, and technology. Through an unprecedented collaboration with a truly singular interdisciplinary team, we have combined high-resolution photography, structure-from-motion photogrammetry and X-ray computed tomography, producing the first research-grade interactive 3D models of the exterior and interior of each lunar and meteorite sample in a single coordinate system. Here’s a brief introduction to our methodology:

Photographic Image Capture & Processing:

The first step is to take high-resolution precision photography (HRPP). NASA’s astromaterials are housed in a multi-cleanroom facility and have strict curation protocols to protect them for research and posterity. Therefore, the rocks must be kept inside nitrogen cabinets at all times during the photographic process. There are also restrictions on what materials the rocks can come into contact with, and in most cases, they can only come into contact with the following materials: Teflon, stainless steel, and certain types of aluminum. Therefore, I could not put a 3D scanner into the nitrogen cabinet to scan the rocks, as this equipment contains materials that do not meet Curation protocols. So, I had to develop a method to manually photograph the rocks through the small windows of scientific glass that exist on one end of the cabinet, which is called the science observation port. Using a custom imaging setup, I capture each image in increments of 7.5- to 15 degrees in rotation, and then at 15-degree elevations, which totals between 240 and 480 angles of each rock. I use high-resolution professional camera systems that range from 60- to 100 megapixels in order to maximize the surface details, and to achieve a final model texture that is “research-grade”. The technique provides images that achieve resolutions as fine as 30 to 60 microns, depending on the sample size and the camera system implemented. This method provides exceptional detail and reliable fidelity of the rock meant to meet the quality demands of both todays and future users.

X-ray Computed Tomography Imaging:

Each of the rocks in the Astromaterials 3D project is XCT scanned at either the University of Texas High-Resolution X-ray Computed Tomography Facility or at the Astromaterials Research & Exploration Science CT Laboratory at NASA Johnson Space Center. XCT image data provide a complete 1:1 volume data set of the rock, where brightness variation of textural features is related to its density and composition.

Generating the Interior & Exterior 3D Models:

My colleague Joseph Aebersold does all the modeling and this is a highly manual process. We use SFM software to produce our 3D reconstructions of the HRPP images using photogrammetric principles. The method uses image-processing algorithms and techniques originating in computer vision to resolve 3D models for accurate and detailed visualization of each sample. The software provides a stepwise process that is then manually tailored for each model based on the unique spatial and specular reflectance properties of each rock.

Model “Fusion”:

The process for registering the coordinate system and combining the SFM model with the XCT data in order to achieve the “fused” 3D model of both data sets went through several stages of development before the final method was achieved, originally developed by our colleague Kevin Beaulieu and then furthered by Joseph Aebersold, who now performs this step as well. The Astromaterials 3D Explorer is a custom-engineered browser-based software application that ingests the exterior (HRPP) and interior (XCT) image data and digitally “fuses” them into a single object.

The Astromaterials 3D Website & Explorer

The Astromaterials 3D Explorer application was developed by team member Ben Feist and uses a combination of sprite graphics in the browser canvas and on-demand high-resolution downloads. The data is rendered in real-time within the user’s browser, using a Three.js 3D library on a WebGL platform. This technology enables our high-performance, hardware-accelerated 3D visualizations, providing high-fidelity data that is streamed on-demand and produces the very high-quality sample visualizations we achieve at the lowest possible bandwidth and computer processing power. I had a very clear vision of the world I wanted our viewers to experience while exploring Astromaterials 3D, and the stunning design and graphics that visually tell the story of the project and guide the viewer through the site were developed by team member David Charney.

Every Rock Tells a Story

In order to share some of the incredible formation stories of NASA’s moon rock and meteorite samples, I write veritable biographies for each rock in Astromaterials 3D–I’ve included several in the image gallery above (click the “i” next to the image gallery to pull up the captions) but here is one of my favorites: https://ares.jsc.nasa.gov/astromaterials3d/sample-details.htm?sample=GRO17063-3

Launch Phase & Future Developments

The Astromaterials 3D Website & Explorer Application was launched to the public in December 2020 and quickly received global acclaim, with scientists, educators, students, and artists using the site and data products for incredible new efforts. In March 2022 we launched new samples and features, including the ability to download our high-resolution 3D models from every sample’s details page! We’ve also added NASA Pins—a curated selection of surface and XCT features with brief scientific descriptions written by NASA’s Curation scientists, visible in the Pins section of the Explorer.

Astromaterials 3D is as much a rigorous research-oriented library as it is a public artwork, meant to deepen our sense of wonder and knowledge of our solar system through a virtual holding of these rare and remarkable rocks in our hands. At its core, Astromaterials 3D intends to provide greater access to NASA’s space rock collections, making their encyclopedic stories accessible to curious minds across all disciplines and ages.

We will continue to add samples from existing collections and are looking toward the future: to sample return missions underway and planned that will bring rocks back from asteroids and other planet bodies. This is just the beginning…

I invite you to embark on this journey with me and visit the Astromaterials 3D website and Explorer application, now live on NASA’s web platform: https://ares.jsc.nasa.gov/astromaterials3d 

2017, High-Resolution X-ray Computed Tomography Facility at The University of Texas at Austin (UTCT)

2019, Meteorite Laboratory, NASA JSC (Photo: NASA/Josh Valcarcel)

Astromaterials 3D setup in Lunar Laboratory, NASA JSC

2019, Lunar Laboratory, NASA JSC (Photo: NASA/Josh Valcarcel)