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Astromaterials 3D

Season 1Episode 268Dec 9, 2022

Learn how you can explore Moon rocks virtually with the Astromaterials 3D project. HWHAP Episode 268.

Houston We Have a Podcast: Ep. 268 Astromaterials 3D

Houston We Have a Podcast: Ep. 268 Astromaterials 3D

From Earth orbit to the Moon and Mars, explore the world of human spaceflight with NASA each week on the official podcast of the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. Listen to in-depth conversations with the astronauts, scientists and engineers who make it possible.

On Episode 268, learn how you can explore Moon rocks virtually with the Astromaterials 3D project. This episode was recorded on October 18, 2022.

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Pat Ryan (Host): Houston, we have a podcast! Welcome to the official podcast of the NASA Johnson Space Center, Episode 268, “Astromaterials 3D.” I’m Pat Ryan. On this podcast we talk with scientists, engineers, astronauts, and other folks about their part in America’s space exploration program, and today we’re going to show you how you can play with some Moon rocks. When NASA landed six Apollo missions on the Moon, each of those pair of astronauts had some quantity of Moon rocks and dust with them when their Lunar Excursion Module jumped off of the gray surface, headed for Rendezvous with the Command Module to bring them home to Earth. All told, 842 pounds of lunar rocks, core samples, pebbles, sand, and dust came back to Earth. That’s all. And it all came right here to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, to a building over on the other side of the campus from where I’m sitting today. From there, the people and facilities in what is today called the Astromaterials Research and Exploration Science division, ARES, examined and cataloged those pieces of the Moon, studied them, and have and still do administer a program that sends samples to scientists for research. Too bad regular folks like you and me can’t see them, right? Well, we can — some of them — thanks to a program that has created a virtual library of NASA’s space rock collections in high-resolution, three-dimensional image models that you can access from your home computer. And not just stuff from the Moon, but meteorites collected in Antarctica…perhaps one day samples return to Earth from comets and from Mars. The science principal investigator and project lead for the Astromaterials 3D project is Erika Blumenfeld, who describes herself as a transdisciplinary artist whose work focuses on stories of connection across the cosmos, stories that intersect with art and science and nature and culture. She has a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the Parsons School of Design and a Master of Science in conservation studies, with distinction, from University College London. And besides her work with NASA, she’s worked with other science and research institutions, including Scripps Institution of Oceanography, the McDonald Observatory, and the South African National Antarctic Program. She’s with us today, along with Jeremy Kent, who started work in ARES in the Astromaterials Curation Group in 2013, working on curation and processing of extraterrestrial geologic samples, which I think just sounds really cool. He has a bachelor’s in geology from Michigan Tech and a master’s in geology from the University of Houston, and is now an Apollo sample curation processor who manages the Apollo Thin Section lab, and he’s worked as part of the interdisciplinary team that ran with the Astromaterials 3D idea and turned it into a reality. How we can put Moon rocks in your virtual hands: here we go.


Host: The chances are good that everybody who’s listening to the podcast today has seen pictures of Moon rocks. The chances are also good that the closeup images you saw were originally captured at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, the home of the agency’s Astromaterials Research and Exploration Sciences division; that’s known as ARES. In December 2020 a group of folks in ARES publicly launched a means for you and me to see and manipulate some of these extraterrestrial samples up close — from anywhere. It’s called Astromaterials 3D; just search that phrase, you’ll find it online. And today we’re going to find out where the idea came from and how it was developed. I’d like to start by sketching out some details of the astromaterials lab and start with Jeremy Kent, who is an Apollo sample curation processor there. Jeremy, a thumbnail sketch of the astromaterials lab and, and its purpose and the work that gets done there.

Jeremy Kent: OK. So there are actually several different labs within the astromaterials curation department, and the particular ones that I work in are related to the Apollo samples themselves. So the Pristine Sample Laboratory is a big one that most people would have in mind if they have thought of or looked into the sample processing…

Host: Yeah.

Jeremy Kent:…that, that goes on there. And I work in a couple of the other auxiliary labs as well.

Host: What are the other, is the Pristine Sample Lab part of its actual name?

Jeremy Kent: Yes. Yes.

Host: OK.

Jeremy Kent, Apollo Thin Section Contract Lab Manager and Curation Processor

Jeremy Kent: So “pristine” has a very technical definition for us. It means the, the samples that are stored and processed in there have never been exposed to Earth’s atmosphere.

Host: Ah, OK.

Jeremy Kent: Yes. So, then we have a separate lab for samples that have been exposed to the atmosphere, and then another lab for samples that have been returned by PIs, principal investigators, after their study…

Host: After they’ve been sent out for study, and come back.

Jeremy Kent:Yes. Exactly.

Host: OK.

Jeremy Kent: And another lab that I run called the Thin Section Lab, the Apollo Thin Section Lab, where I make essentially, microscope slides of the Moon rocks.

Host: Neat…because I’m not involved in anything like that, I don’t understand how you cut rocks into thin sections.

Jeremy Kent: Yes. It involves a lot of epoxy work, a lot of grinding and polishing and low-speed circular saw work. And what you do is you, you end up with a very thin slice of rock that’s mounted to a silica slide, and that, that rock is about 30, 35 microns thick.

Host: Give me a, a, how do I gauge how big a micron is?

Jeremy Kent: That’s less than half the width of one of your hairs on your head.

Host: OK. Among the, these four labs then, what is, how would you describe the goal in the work that’s done there?

Jeremy Kent: So, the primary goal of the labs is, first and foremost, to keep the samples as safe as possible and in, in as close to their original condition as, as can be maintained. And then after that, it’s to make them accessible to the scientific community for research that they’ve been approved to perform on the samples.

Host: And, and that’s been going on with samples from the Moon for over 50 years now, right?

Jeremy Kent: Yes. Yes, it has. And there have been a couple of different iterations of the lab, it’s moved from place to place in the building over that time before the current wing of the building that the lab resides in now actually existed.

Host: Right. You mentioned that there are different labs for rocks that have either been exposed to Earth’s environment or not; what is, why is the, the environment that these samples are kept in so important? Why, why do you have to keep them segregated?

Jeremy Kent: Yes, because exposure to Earth’s atmosphere will chemically and permanently change the, the rocks themselves. The oxygen and water vapor in the air will more or less make samples start to rust a little bit.

Host: Rust?

Jeremy Kent: Yes. Or otherwise oxidize. There is a fair amount of, of iron metal in the lunar samples. Most of that is from meteorite impacts into the surface of the Moon that distributes little grains of metal all throughout the, the rocks and dust that are, that are on the surface.

Host: Neat. Tell me how you came to work there. Tell me a little bit about your education and the background that, that got you to slicing rocks from the Moon.

Jeremy Kent: Sure, sure. So I originally got my bachelor’s degree in geology from Michigan Technological University, and I moved to Houston after I got that degree, I was working for Schlumberger for two and a half years or so. And then I went back to school at University of Houston to get my masters. And while I was there, I was talking to the different professors to see what sort of research opportunities they had available. I was thinking I would probably work in, or study structural geology or something like that, something that would be applicable to my previous experience in the oil and gas field, but I found out that I, if I wanted, I had the option to study Mars or Moon rocks, and that was something I just couldn’t say no to. Even though I didn’t know what I would do with that experience, I couldn’t pass it up. And I chose studying Moon rocks; I was studying lunar meteorites especially. And through that process I did some of my data collection research here at Johnson Space Center because it’s just down the street, basically, from U of H. And at the time of my graduation a job opening happened to open up; I was very fortunate in that regard. And the rest is history.

Host:[Laughter] As they say…to coin the phrase.

Jeremy Kent: Yes.

Host: Erika Blumenfeld is a transdisciplinary artist, and we’ll work our way up to how you got connected with ARES. But first, would you educate me about what transdisciplinary means in this context and how you became interested in art at all?

Erika Blumenfeld, transdisciplinary artist, writer, and researcher

Erika Blumenfeld: Yes. I love this question; thank you for asking it. I think I chose transdisciplinarity as my title because I, I love answering this question, but it’s also something I aspire to in my work. And so, you know, the simple definition of transdisciplinary is simply “beyond discipline.” But I like to think of it more as the unity of knowledge frameworks that go beyond disciplinary perspectives. So…

Host: Not limited to one discipline.

Erika Blumenfeld: Yes, but also even, even perhaps even creating a new knowledge framework because of this unity, right, that where, where there’s not these silos of discipline but, but more of a coming together and a unity of knowledge towards a new knowledge framework. And I think our world so needs that. And so, so I aspire to that in my work to the best of my ability.

Host: Give me a, a trip through your professional background: how did you become interested in art and, and some of the, the things that you have been involved with?

Erika Blumenfeld: Yes. I’ve, I’ve always been an artist, since I was a small person. But I think it was in, it was in high school, I had a high school that had an incredible arts program, and I became immediately fascinated with, with photography. And I think, you know, I’ve, I’ve always been interested in these, in these places where art and science meet, and I think photography was the perfect medium for me to start to embark on an artistic practice where, you know, there’s, there is this meeting of optics and chemistry and, and artistry inherent in the medium. And so, I started there. I did my Bachelor of Fine Arts in photography at Parsons School of Design, and then went directly into my career as an artist and have been working as a professional artist. And as I started to collaborate more and more with scientists through my curiosities and interest in natural phenomena, I also started to embark on a more cross-disciplinary, interdisciplinary, and now transdisciplinary effort, and, and really my work now is, is far more research-based. I think it was always research-based, but I think, you know, now I really embrace the research capacity of my, of my practice.

Host: It’s maybe just be an expression of my ignorance but I, I would tend to think of artists as people who generally work alone, and you’re talking about most of your work as being in collaboration with others.

Erika Blumenfeld: Yes. Yes, I do, I do also work alone. I, I think there’s, I need that solitude for, for that part of my, my creative practice. But there is something about engaging with other minds, other, other innovative ideas and, and also stepping beyond the confines of what I think we do think of as art, and, and trying out creative ideas in the world in new ways. And I think I’ve always been drawn to do that. And my interest in collaborating with scientists and research institutions, which I’ve done, been doing now for 20 years, has really been, because I’m curious, I’m inherently curious about what other people are learning and where I can apply my creative abilities in other ways.

Host: So you’re collaborating with artists, with scientists, and then now your collaboration with scientists has brought you to the Johnson Space Center and Moon geologists. How does that, how did that happen?

Erika Blumenfeld: Oh gosh. Well, the short version of that answer…

Host: Oh, we have plenty of time.

Erika Blumenfeld:…is that I’m literally obsessed with rocks. And, but there is a longer version of that story, so I’d love to share that.

Host: Yes.

Erika Blumenfeld: OK. So back in 2011…you know, I’ve always been a, I’ve always been interested in rocks. I think even as a child, like picking up rocks along, you know, a shoreline or a mountain pathway, there’s this sense of the unknown and the mysterious in these, in these rocks. I, I think, you know, there’s, rock collectors everywhere understand this, right? There’s something just inherent in the material. But in 2011 I had this incredible opportunity. I was invited to be an artist-in-residence on board a sailboat in, with a group of scientists and artists who, by this incredible arts organization out of the UK called Cape Farewell. And their goal was to discuss issues of climate change and how that’s culturally relevant, and to bring artists and scientists together to have these conversations. And we were specifically sailing the, the Scottish Isles and, to meet the communities there that were being affected by the rising seas. And so, what I, what I became interested in on that journey was, was the incredible rock formations there. I mean, just the basalt pillars along the coastline just absolutely blew my mind. And, and the Lewisian gneiss, which is just, I mean, it’s just the epitome of mystery to me. And I had this, I had this experience as I was driving through an area near Loch Ness on way to the boat where we drove through a road cut, and I’m always looking at the at road cuts, because, you know, you can see the strata of, of the rock layers and it’s such an incredible script there, right? There’s something happening in those layers that I want to learn about.

Host: I remember seeing those as a kid…

Emily Blumenfeld:Yes.

Host:…on family drives where you are going, and what is all that?

Erika Blumenfeld: What is that, right? And so, I had this, like, I really paid attention to this one. I was really curious. Anyway, so fast forward a couple of months later, I’m, it’s winter, I’m watching this like nerdy documentary on geology that actually was really excellent. (Laughter) And it was sort of like a murder mystery for geology. Like: dun dun dun, “how did this happen?” And it always ended up with “subduction.” Anyway, so, so I’m watching this, just riveted, and, and this particular episode was about the area around Loch Ness, which, where I had just been, so I was particularly curious. And then there’s this moment where the camera pans to this geologist standing by a road cut, and it was the same road cut I had just been through a couple of months previous. And this geologist starts talking about actually what’s happening in these layers of rock, and describes the fact that these rocks aren’t just like the rocks in the Catskills in upstate New York, but they are the same rock; that these continents had once been joined. And that these, this rock formation was a place where you could see that formation. And my mind just exploded…

Host: Wow.

Erika Blumenfeld:…because I started to see this inherent connection, and how could we start to talk about the com, you know, start to talk about ideas of connection at a planetary level, right? So then he said something that I’ve never forgotten, and if any geologist that I’ve spoken with, at some point when they’re talking about their, their point of research, will always eventually say, “but the story is in the rock.” And this idea that, that rocks are scrolls of knowledge became sort of the vantage point that I, I embarked on after that, and just really, really compelled by this idea that, that, that there are stories in rocks that need to be told, or that can be told. And that if you know the language of, of the rock, then you can, you can hear these stories.

Host: Jeremy, do you agree there’s stories in the rocks?

Jeremy Kent: Oh, yes, absolutely. That’s, that, yeah, Erika’s absolutely right, that’s something any geologist will…

Host: Yeah.

Jeremy Kent:…will totally agree with. And, and that’s certainly, especially true with the Apollo rocks. Researchers are still very actively looking at the rocks…

Host: Right.

Jeremy Kent:…and discerning, discerning all kinds of new information about them: learning about the formation history of the Moon and the relationship of the Moon to the Earth, and what its original composition was, the Moon, and like the impactor that struck the Earth to create the Moon, and all sorts of things like that.

Host: I maybe diverted before you’d finished the story, because how does that documentary about that road cut in Scotland end up in the ARES here on campus in Houston?

Erika Blumenfeld: Yes. So the story continues…so essentially, I, at the time, I decided to go back and do a masters, and it’s, so I did a, I enrolled in a program, it was a master’s of science in conservation studies, so heritage conservation studies. And I was interested in, in essentially looking at the relationship between nature and culture…

Host: OK.

Erika Blumenfeld:…and why they have been sort of systemically separated from each other, where, whereas in my thinking they are sort of inextricably linked. So, so I was looking at the heritage field and trying to understand, like, why are they, how have they been separated since the UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) protocols…anyway, I could, I could wax on that for a long time. Anyway, my thesis was, was essentially on looking at the natural night sky and how we could, how significant the natural night sky has been to our culture, and our, you know, across, across cultures, across timelines, across, you know, the stories and, the stories that we tell and, and our mythology and our science and our, you know, philosophy and our art. And it goes on and on. And so, as it being such a source of, of, of inspiration to us across time to our whole species is, I think that we should preserve and protect our night sky. So this was, this was the work that I was doing for my thesis, but it was a science degree and at some point my advisor said, well this is great, you know, this is a great theoretical paper and, and, and effort, but you have to do some science. (Laughter)

Host:(Laughter) I was hoping you weren’t going to notice that part.

Erika Blumenfeld: And so, so, you know, she asked me, you know, you have to pick, or she said, you need to pick a material. And my colleagues were, were working with, you know, pottery shards and ancient metallurgy and, and weaving techniques and, you know, things that…

Host: You’re looking for something different.

Erika Blumenfeld:…things that, things that I’m actually really interested in. But what I decided was, I, I said, well, I want to choose meteorites. And she looked at me and she’s like, I’m not a, you know, this isn’t a geology program, like, and I said, yeah, but, but meteorites have been revered by cultures across time, and in fact, the director of, of my program in that moment had just completed a paper doing analysis on these five Egyptian beads that were 5,000 years old and had just determined that they, in fact, were made from meteorites.

Host: Wow.

Erika Blumenfeld: And so, there was this long pause and she said, OK, I’ll let you do it. And so, the program was quite new, and I had almost full access to an analysis lab. And so I started doing scientific analysis on this, on this meteorite, and learning what that means, like learning what it means to see into the, the structure, the chemical structure of, of these rocks. And I had what I like to call my Carl Sagan moment where I’m watching the peaks come in and I start to realize that this rock and I are made of the same, the same stuff. And it occurred to me in that moment how important it is that the story of these rocks be told, and that, that this idea that we are connected to something greater through, that the story can be told through the cosmic chemistry that we can study within these rocks that tell us about the solar system. This was so, it felt so important to me. And I, this question came into my mind: could I hold a rock in my hand that told the story of the whole cosmos? And of course, this is a poetic idea, this was, you know, it was, it was meant to be a poetic idea, but in truth the, the astromaterials samples that, that are held within NASA’s collections actually do tell this story. So I contacted NASA.

Host: Cold, out of the blue.

Erika Blumenfeld: Cold, out of the blue. Yeah. My, my colleagues like to say, yeah, she cold-called us. (Laughter) But, but you know, as brazen as that sound, it’s also true. And I think there was this part of me that was so passionately inspired by this idea of how, of trying to find a way to make these samples more accessible, knowing that they are protected for posterity, for research, and that even though a certain number of them are allocated for education and also for, for exhibition for the public that, that, you know, the lion’s share of the, of the collection is, is inaccessible to most people.

Host: For the reasons that Jeremy explained few minutes ago.

Erika Blumenfeld: Precisely; precisely.

Host: So that makes what you have in mind a lot harder.

Erika Blumenfeld: Well, gratefully the department was really interested in the proposal. So I, I came in 2013, they amazingly opened the door to have me come and have a conversation with them. And, and so I did, and I explained what, what I was doing and why, and they were curious, and they were interested, and they said, OK, what, what would you want to do? And I said, have you ever made 3D models of Moon rocks and meteorites before? And they said, no, and I said, well, let’s do that. And, and so, that’s how it began. And I…actually, it’s a funny story, too, because, so that was in January 2013, and so we developed sort of a, an initial, in, you know, initial pathway to how we might make this work.

Host: Because at that point, you don’t have a process to make 3D models.

Erika Blumenfeld: At that point I did not. I had…

Host: You had an idea.

Erika Blumenfeld: I, I had an idea, but I had never tried to do what I was imagining. You know, the vision that I had for Astromaterials 3D at that time was formed, but, but how to get there, the pathway to get there was, was not formed.

Host: Tell me about how your work along with the, the people and the ARES lab here developed that, that process?

Erika Blumenfeld: Well, funny enough…that’s also a long story, but yes. But funny enough, the first, my first trip back in August of 2013 was, I came back for a week to do just preliminary scouting, like, you know, who could I talk to that might be, I might be able to bring on to a team? Like I was trying to form a team. I was trying to understand how the protocols worked, how I could work in the labs. And, and it’s funny because the first day that I was, was brought in to, to learn about the protocols of the lab was also Jeremy’s first day.

Jeremy Kent: Yeah. It was my first day on the job.

Erika Blumenfeld: And so, we essentially did the, you know, the tour together.

Jeremy Kent: We did, yeah.

Host: Yeah. The orientation.

Erika Blumenfeld: The orientation, yes, exactly.

Jeremy Kent: Yeah. That, that’s definitely a, a big memory of mine. My very first day on the job, walking in through the air shower with, with Erika here, and getting the whole tour of the whole lab and learning about how all the processes work in there.

Host: Before we go too far away from it, explain what an air shower is?

Jeremy Kent: (Laughter) Yeah. So there are…

Host: There might be some people out there that aren’t familiar with that.

Jeremy Kent: There are different stages for, for entering the lab. You don’t just open a door and walk in.

Host: Right.

Jeremy Kent: So there is a dirty gowning room, and then, basically, you open the first door, you walk through, you clean your shoes off on a sticky mat and put on little shoe covers, so that you’re not tracking in any debris with you. Then you can go into the clean change room. And in there, you put on what we call a bunny suit. So it’s a full jumpsuit…

Host: It matches the booties?

Jeremy Kent: Oh, yes. Actually, no, it doesn’t: so the booties are blue and the bunny suit is white. That’s why we call it a bunny suit. And, so yes, it’s a one-piece jumpsuit that zips up in the front, snaps at your collar, your wrists, and your ankles. Then you put on additional boots over top of those, which are white, so they do match the bunny suit.

Host: Well, thank goodness.

Jeremy Kent: Along with a hat that covers your hair and gloves that cover your hands.

Host: And the goal is to prevent contamination — you bringing contamination into the lab areas.

Jeremy Kent: Correct. Yes. The whole setup of the lab is designed to protect the rocks from us. Yes.

Host: OK.

Jeremy Kent: And not the other way around. And so, once you have that whole bunny suit in place, you’re wearing it, then you step into an air shower. So the air shower has a gentle laminar flow of air from, passing from the ceiling down through the floor, and it carries away any dust particles that you brought with you before…

Host: From the last room.

Jeremy Kent:…from the last room, yes, until you, before you go into the, into the actual lab to work.

Host: So you are involved from the very first day that Erika showed up to try to, to devise the process for how to, how to make these 3D models. Give, give me a sense of, of the work that you had to do to, to create this, this process?

Erika Blumenfeld: Oh, boy. So, there are a lot of moving parts to this project, and there are enormous number of different disciplines that come together to do this. So there’s, you know, image scientists and imagery analysis, analysis and photogrammetrists and cure, you know, astromaterials curators, and, I mean the list goes on and on actually. So the first thing that we, that I, that I had to develop was a process to image the rocks. And that’s perhaps, sounds easier than it actually is. So the rocks have to stay inside of the nitrogen cabinet that they are, because, because they are protected from, from the air.

Host: A cabinet filled with nitrogen.

Erika Blumenfeld: Yes, exactly. A cabinet filled with nitrogen, which means that the only way that I can look at the rock is through glass. And so these cabinets were designed originally for certain types of scientific analysis: there’s a port on one end of the cabinets that’s called the scientific observation port, and that has a flat top and two, and a front, a small window at the front that you can see into. And then it has the gloves. But, but in order to get a, a high resolution and, you know, what we call research grade ver, you know, 3D model, a 3D model that is extremely high resolution with extreme detail, I have to use a, well I used a medium format, high resolution camera…

Host: OK.

Erika Blumenfeld:…which is large and cumbersome and…

Host: And wasn’t built to take a picture through a small window of a nitrogen tank.

Erika Blumenfeld:…through a tiny little window. And not just that, but images at 15 degrees around the entire circumference of the rock.

Host: Meaning you, you move…

Erika Blumenfeld: Correct.

Host:…either the camera or the rock, at that increment in order to go all the way around.

Erika Blumenfeld: Right. So essentially the first thing I had to do was, was design something that went, that could go into the cabinet that could rotate the rock. So that, in other words, the, the rock, handling the rock the least was the goal. And so I ended up designing and building a rotation stage with my team that was made of the very few materials that are allowed in the cabinet.

Host: OK.

Erika Blumenfeld:And…

Jeremy Kent: Only three.

Host: Only three?

Jeremy Kent: Yeah. Other than the rocks themselves, only stainless steel, aluminum, and Teflon are allowed inside.

Erika Blumenfeld: Yeah. And so, and it’s a certain kind of, of aluminum. So I, I was able to, to make it out of aluminum, but I was trying to make marks so we were using this rotation stage, I had to be able to mark it not only with degrees but also with targets so that the, the 3D reconstruction software would, would recognize and be able to help us create…

Host: Know which images to put next to one another.

Erika Blumenfeld:…put together but also, yeah, but and also scaling is a real issue. We want to be as scientifically accurate as possible…

Host: OK.

Erika Blumenfeld:…so we wanted to make sure we could, we could achieve proper scaling. And so this required making a mark on a surface that can’t have ink or pigment on it. And so, so these were some of the, the initial challenges, how do you, how do you create something that’s, that’s with protocol, you know, in, inside protocol. So developing new, new technology, developing new equipment, that was the first thing. And then, once I had a prototype of that and that was certified to go into the cabinet, I was able to then work at trying to figure out how to achieve different elevations so that I could get the angles. And…

Host: Because we’re talking about 3D models, all 360 degrees…

Erika Blumenfeld: Correct. Correct.

Host:…around a, any and all of the, the samples.

Erika Blumenfeld and Jeremy Kent photographing samples in the Lunar Lab.

Erika Blumenfeld: Right. Yes. And so, where Jeremy came in on, on that is, you know, so every time, every time I would put a rock on the stage, the rotation stage, that had to be handled by a processor. So Jeremy and, and some of his colleagues also would help but Jeremy was really, really provided enormous amount of support for, for this project in that way. And so there was, there were moments where, you know, we would have to, you know, he would have to put the rock on the stage, and then I would image, image, and, you know, rotate in every direction. So essentially there’s like between 240 and 480 images that I take per rock in order to create the stitching for the, for the reconstruction. And then, you know, halfway through, or once I finished the one hemisphere, we would have to flip the rock, and I would have to photograph the, the other hemisphere. And actually, this is a funny little story, is that, so my phone, because I was, because I had to text Jeremy so many times — Hey, are you available to flip a rock? — my phone, whenever I would pull up Jeremy’s name, would start offering words to me; like, “flip a rock” became a phrase that my phone actually…

Host: Learned.

Erika Blumenfeld:…learned because, you know, over the course of the three years that I imaged the rocks during the, the final phase, I imaged 60 rocks, 30 of which, actually a little more than 30 of which, were, were lunar samples. And, and some of them needed to be flipped more than once.

Jeremy Kent: We got pretty efficient at it.

Erika Blumenfeld: Yes, we did.

Host: Well, yeah, I bet. Well, how long did it take? I’m, I’m still thinking that you’re working out in developing the tools and the process for how you’re going to do it, because NASA being NASA you’re going to have to show this to somebody and get their, get their blessing in order to approve it. How long did it take to, to develop…

Erika Blumenfeld: To do that?

Host:…the tools and the process?

Erika Blumenfeld: Yes. Well, so, great question. So the initial process was, so I, I came for that one week in, in August 2013 and, and developed a pathway and a, and a, and a small team of, of people that we thought we could try to make a stab at this. And then I came back in, I guess it was the spring of 2014, so the following year, and was offered an opportunity to stay for three months and do a feasibility study. So that was the, my real opportunity to work through a prototype of the rotation stage, to work, actually I was able to work with a Moon rock on site in the lab, develop a preliminary approach to, to imaging, and at the end of that timeframe, and that, that was actually when we also started to incorporate what’s called the XCT (X-Ray Computed Tomography) scans, so these are, so what I’m, I’m doing in the lab is I’m taking the exterior high-resolution imagery of the rock manually; that’s not, we’re not scanning, it’s not a 3D scanner. We, I do all of the, that exterior imagery for the texture of the 3D model manually. But then we also do what’s called a, a XCT scan — so that’s X-Ray Computed Tomography, kind of like if you had your bone, your bones scanned to see them. It’s, it’s x-ray, very, just a different intensity for, for a rock. And, and the rocks are scanned in order to see into the, the interior of them. And because x-rays are correlated to an atomic weight, you can start to actually understand what these rocks are made of. So, so the idea came into being, actually it was, it was the idea of my colleague Kevin Beaulieu who was, who was one of the original team members on the research grant, and he was, he thought that it would be a really cool idea to, to include the XCT, and we all agreed. And so then it became not just making 3D models, but how do you actually then fuse these two models together, and that was really the innovation of the project. So at the end of those three months of feasibility study, we were, we produced the first 3D model of a Moon rock that had ever been made.

Host: Nice.

Erika Blumenfeld: And we were super-proud of that. And, and, and so we presented our, our results to, to the department. And after my presentation where we showed that we could make the model and correlate it with the XCT, Eileen Stansbery, who was the chair at the time and still is, she stood up and, and said, we, we have to do this. And that was, that was amazing to me. And she, and then my colleagues who I was working with, encouraged me to apply for an official NASA grant to, to perform the research. So we did that the following year in 2015, we put together a ROSES (Research Opportunities in Space and Earth Sciences) PDART (Planetary Data Archiving, Restoration, and Tools) proposal, and we were awarded that proposal to start work in the following year, in 2016.

Host: At that point, do you know how much, how long the process is going to take or how many samples you’re going to be able to image, or, or do you have a goal?

Erika Blumenfeld: We did. I mean, through the, through the proposal process we, we determined that we believed we could achieve 60 rocks over the three years.

Host: OK.

Erika Blumenfeld: It, it took us four, and then we had to build and design a website and create a, a software application to actually combine the two data sets in a viewer that could be available for the public. And so we did that over the, the, the pandemic year.

Host: I, I, and I, and I do want hear about that, but it occurs to me to ask now, there are something over 800 pounds of Moon rocks that were brought back; how do you determine which 60 rocks you wanted to, to look at, to, to, to run through this process in order to create a 3D image of?

Jeremy Kent: Yes. So that, that was kind of a collaboration process. Some particular rocks of unique significance, like the first rock that was collected on Apollo 11.

Host: OK.

Jeremy Kent: And other rocks of particularly large size or scientific interest; things that were also very representative of the different types of rocks that were found in the, in the collection. So we wanted to get a, a broad representative collection, I guess of…

Host: I’m…pretty representative of people who would think that, you know, well, Moon rocks are Moon rocks, and, but you’re telling me there are different kinds of Moon rocks, give…

Jeremy Kent: Oh, yes.

Host:…give me a sense of what, what is the differences? What, what different categories are we talking about, if that’s the right word to describe it?

Jeremy Kent: So when you look up at the Moon in the sky, it has light colored areas and dark colored areas.

Host: Right.

Jeremy Kent: So those, those regions represent predominantly much different types of rocks.

Host: Oh, OK.

Jeremy Kent: So the light-colored areas are very low density rock type called anorthosite. And the dark, dark colored areas are primarily basalt. And then through billions of years of impact bombardment, these rocks have been broken up into pieces, scattered around and fused together to form new rocks, either just physically or by melting them and producing new rocks through the melt. And so that produces a, a variety of different types of rocks and some of these impact events can even excavate much deeper rocks from, from the lower part of the crust or maybe even the, the mantle of the Moon.

Host: You talking like big meteor strikes…

Jeremy Kent: Exactly.

Host:…digging holes and pulling material up to the surface.

Jeremy Kent: That’s correct. Yep.

Host: And so, you’re picking 60 samples that are, you’re going, you’re, I, I assume you’re trying to demonstrate the breadth of, of what is, what we have in the collection…

Jeremy Kent: Exactly.

Host:…which may not be what is all there?

Erika Blumenfeld: That’s correct. Yeah. Jeremy’s completely right. And, and you know, we, we worked with both the Apollo lunar sample collection, but we also worked with the Antarctic meteorite collection.

Host: Right, right.

Erika Blumenfeld: And so, so we worked with Ryan Zeigler who’s the, the curator of the Apollo samples, and Kevin Righter, who’s the curator of the meteorite samples, and essentially came up with a strategy for, for the three years that we were imaging. And essentially what we, what we decided was that, you know, year one, we would focus on all the “rock stars.”

Host: I see what you did there.

Erika Blumenfeld: [Laughter] So, so the, the, you know, the high profile, high priority samples that have been, have been well researched, and are beloved either culturally or scientifically or both. And so, so that was year one. And then year two, we wanted to really offer opportunities for people to study samples that hadn’t been well studied, and there are a number of them, actually. And so I was particularly interested in the samples that had the highest level of pristinity. So, that had the least amount of sample removed from it since it had been on the Moon, which I thought was, was so interesting, like it was almost just like it was when it was on the Moon.

Host: The least tampered with…

Erika Blumenfeld: Exactly.

Host:… by puny humans.

Erika Blumenfeld: [Laughter] Yes. And then, year three was, was an effort to show how Astromaterials 3D could work alongside normal lab work. And so we left that year sort of open to what were the interests going on in the lab for, you know, science-oriented interests or what rocks had been, had been, you know, were out and available. And we, and that ended up being, we ended up filling in some, some missing areas from the first two years also. So, so that, you know, like Jeremy said, that we had a really, a, as broad a spectrum of the different type of rock, types of rocks within each collection. And if you look at the website we have, we have, you know, samples from each of the Apollo missions and we have samples from, you know, on the Apollo side of things, and then on the meteorite side of things, you know, we have meteorites from the Moon and Mars and, and Vesta and, and, you know, the, the inner, the inner belt. Different, different types with organics, organic materials, some that are referencing, you know, the, the types of, of samples we might hope to see in Bennu when OSIRIS-REx (Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security – Regolith Explorer) lands next year.

Host: Next year. I understand why these 60 rocks were chosen in order to represent the different categories of, of rocks we’re dealing with. In working with them for all these years, do you find that you have favorite rocks?

Erika Blumenfeld: I love this question so much. Yes.

Host: [Laughter] That’s what I live for.

Erika Blumenfeld: I, I love, yeah, I have favorites, but my colleagues will tell you that I have so many favorites that it’s almost a wonder if any of them really are my actual favorites.

Host: None of them realize they’re your favorite.

Lunar Sample 60025 is truly an elder amongst the Apollo Lunar Sample Collection. Classified as a Ferroan Anorthosite and dated to be around 4.4 billion years old, it is one of the oldest rocks brought back from the Moon.

Erika Blumenfeld: Yeah, because they’re all my favorites. But, so I, one that I really am particularly fascinated with is, it’s a, a rock from Apollo 16, it’s called 60025, and this is known as a ferroan anorthosite. And why it captures my attention so much is that it’s, it’s one of the oldest rocks from the Moon and it’s, it’s thought to be 4.4 billion years old. And it’s a, it’s a piece, literally, it’s this beautiful crystalline rock that is, is very whiteish in color, it almost has a little bit of granularity. But it’s literally a, a piece of the original lunar crust. And I find that to be just mind blowing. And actually, Jeremy, would you like to tell the story of, of the original, the original crust of the Moon?

Jeremy Kent: Sure, sure. So, as I was saying before about the lighter-colored areas on the Moon being primarily anorthosite, those rep, or that region represents the original primordial crust of the Moon. So it’s thought that after the Moon first formed by a giant impact event with the Earth that launched debris into orbit around the Earth, that debris coalesced and formed the Moon. And it was still so hot that the entire surface of the Moon would’ve been molten. And over time as that molten material cooled off, the lightest minerals that began crystallizing out of that melt floated up to the surface because they were less dense than the molten material that they were in. And the lightest mineral, lowest-density mineral found on the Moon surface, is this or anorthosite, or anorthite mineral which combined together forms anorthosite rock. And it also happens to be age-dated as the oldest rock type on the Moon. So that, that is how we come to believe that that is the original primordial crust of the Moon.

Host: Yeah. And this is the kind of stuff I can learn on your website while looking at the 3D models.

Erika Blumenfeld: Yes.


Erika Blumenfeld: Jeremy, what’s your favorite rock?

Jeremy Kent: I don’t have a specific favorite rock, but I have a favorite rock type and that would be the coarse-grained basalts. So I, one of the labs that I work in, the Apollo Thin Section lab, when I get to make thin sections out of coarse-grained basalts, they’re so beautiful because they have these large interlocking crystals and when you look at them through cross-polarized light once they’re finished they have such a beautiful range of different colors, blues and greens, and reds and purples, various shades of gray, different textures, and they’re all interlocking together. It, it’s just gorgeous.

Host: In creating the 3D models, did you use the same technical setup that you did in the creation of the process, or did you figure out better ways to do it or better equipment that gave you higher resolution or, you know, a, a more life-like presentation of, of these rocks?

Apollo 11 lunar sample 10021 is seen in the 3D, one of several options available on the Astromaterials 3D website.

Erika Blumenfeld: Well, the, the mastery of the 3D model-making is, is thanks to my colleague Joseph Aebersold who, who does, does all of that process. So, so we work closely together because obviously the, the images that I create need to work with the process that he works with in, in the software. So we use, he uses, you know, photogrammetric principles but we work with an off-the-shelf software to create, to create the models. But, but because of the different surface characteristics of each of these rocks — and some of them are more crystalline, some of them are quite dark; in the case of the meteorites some of them have really, you know, dark fusion crusts — the specular qualities of the surface react differently in, in the software. So he, there’s a lot of manual, manual work that goes into the process of creating, creating each model.

Host: Some artistry.

Erika Blumenfeld: Correct. Well, yes. Absolutely. [Laughter]

Host: You mentioned earlier the, the XCT scanning; can you give me a, a little better sense of, of what that is and how that gets melded together with visual imagery that, that I’m familiar with in order to create these, these 3D models?

Erika Blumenfeld: Well, Jeremy, why don’t you, do you want to talk about the CT and then I can talk about the fusion?

Jeremy Kent: Yeah, that works. So the way that the XCT works in, in relation to the rocks is you, you put the rock inside of the XCT scanner and it sits on a pedestal and…

Host: Wait, wait, I thought everything had to be in the box with…

Jeremy Kent: OK. Yes, yes. That’s a very good point. So in order to scan these samples, first they had to be sealed in a nitrogen environment, which meant sealing them inside multiple layers of Teflon bags before they could then be transferred to the CT scanner. And once, once they’re fully sealed inside three layers of Teflon bagging, then they can be transferred into the CT lab…

Host: OK.

Jeremy Kent:…and put on side of a, on top of a pedestal inside the scanner, and what the, what that does is it, it beams x-rays directly at and through the rock and…

Host: And through the three layers of Teflon.

Jeremy Kent: Yes, yes. So the Teflon is, is very low density compared to the rocks, so it doesn’t really attenuate the x-rays very much…

Host: OK.

Jeremy Kent:…and it’s very easy to crop that out in your resulting images.

Host: Right; sweet.

Jeremy Kent: The, what you’re interested in is how the rock itself attenuates the x-rays, so according to how dense the different minerals are that are present within the rock, it will attenuate the x-rays more or less. And after they pass…

Host: Based on what material of rock you’re talking about.

Jeremy Kent: Yes, yes. And then what, what minerals it’s composed of.

Host: Right.

Jeremy Kent: And so those x-rays eventually pass through the rock and hit a detector on the back behind the rock, and then the rock gets rotated a fraction, a, a couple of degrees or something, or less than a degree in some cases, just depending how you set things up and then…

Host: Do it again.

Jeremy Kent:…and then you do it again, all the way around until you’ve imaged the entire rock that way. And then there’s 3D software that can reconstruct all of those two-dimensional images to form a 3D map of the interior of the rock.

Host: OK. Because, yeah, the, how do you get the pictures of the interior is another question that’s been bouncing around back there. I can see how you can get pictures of what you can see, but how you get the images of what you can’t see…

Jeremy Kent: Yes, yes.

Host:…is, is really fascinating. And then, you were going to tell me how it got the fusion part?

Erika Blumenfeld: Yes, yes. And one thing I’ll mention, too, just…just to mention this is that the, the images of the exterior of the sample are in color, despite the fact that sometimes when you look at the rocks in the viewer on the Astromaterials 3D, they look very toned…

Host: Gray.

Erika Blumenfeld:…in gray or white or black. So, but they are in color, but the interior images are black and white because they are x-ray.

Host: Oh, I see.

Erika Blumenfeld: I always like to point that out.

Host: Don’t be disappointed; don’t complain that they’re not…

Erika Blumenfeld: You’re not going to see crystals in the, yeah. In the color that they reflect light, or refract light. Yeah, so, yeah, so, the fusion was, was really a big part of the innovation of this project. There, there, at the time when we developed the idea there wasn’t a way to correlate two separate models that had been formed in, in separate coordinate systems, and to fuse them. And this was really the brainchild of, of Kevin Beaulieu, and he did our, he, he really worked through the first stage of, of that development and then handed it off to my colleague Joseph Aebersold, who took it on from there. And essentially where we landed with it is that we are able to use two, two software programs: one, to develop the, the initial model of the interior — well, it’s actually three different software. So we have one software that develops the exterior imagery, that ingests all of my photos that I take in the lab of the, of the, of the exterior of the rock, and then creates the 3D model of the texture, the exte, exterior; then there’s the CT data, and we use one software to reconstruct that model and remove the bag that, you know, that you learned about, that protects the rock while it’s being scanned, so we remove the bag; and then we ingest both of those two models, the interior and the exterior, into another software where we’re able to coordinate them into a single coordinate system. However, we can’t output that in, as a, as a single object. So we then had to work with a software engineering mastermind, Ben Feist, who was in charge of essentially creating a software program that could do this in a browser. So the idea is, is that yeah, you could, the output, you know, the, the, the fused model, if you had this software, you could, you could visualize it. This software was, is not open source, it’s extremely expensive and that’s very limited in terms of how you can use it. We wanted something that was user-friendly, that was accessible by anybody on a browser, and so this was a great leap and, in thinking how do you create something that can process an enormous amount of data instantaneously, in real time, for a viewer on somebody’s laptop or cell phone. And, and so this was the great work of, of my colleague Ben who devised a way to, to do this for us. So, so the fusion that we, that we like to call it, actually happens for you in what’s called the Explorer application that’s part of the Astromaterials 3D website.

Host: Ben Feist has been a guest on the podcast before, too.

Erika Blumenfeld: Fantastic.

Host: We talked about some of the, not this but some of the other things that he’s made. And I, but I was getting to the point to, to talk about the browser because, as cool as all of the rest of this is, without that browser I couldn’t see what you’re talking about.

Erika Blumenfeld: Correct.

Host: What is, what is there to, to tell the people about how, you know, where you can go and how you can, you and all of you, can, can see the models that you guys have created?

Erika Blumenfeld: Absolutely. Well…you know, we, we worked, we worked very hard over, over 2020 to create a visual experience, a visceral experience, through the website that would allow people to, to experience the story that we were trying to tell, right? So, another of my colleagues, David Charney, who’s a graphic designer and has an enormous amount of experience working with interactive design specifically for science museums, and so he, he brought an incredible breadth of knowledge and, and insight into how we could, how we could actualize this, this goal of making a world — we wanted to make a world to go explore rocks in, right? And so, so this was, this was a lot of fun. We had a great time, actually, you know, really thinking through creative ideas. We worked with the curators, specifically the meteorite curators in terms of figuring out how do we represent the inner solar system in such a way that we can talk about where these rocks come from, because we wanted from the very beginning we wanted people to understand not intellectually where they come from but we wanted people to feel like they were there. That you’re there on the Moon, that you’re there in the solar system, you’re, you can see right where this rock came from. And then you can explore the rocks that come from that area that we have currently in the brow, in, in the collection, a virtual collection. You know, so it’s really meant to be a, a virtual library, but also a way to engage your imagination. And, and, you know, I write, I write stories, I write a biography for each of each of the rocks.

Host: OK; cool.

Erika Blumenfeld: That is under a section when, when you go to the rocks page, you’ll see right under the model you’ll see it says every, “Every Rock Tells a Story.” And, and so, there’s a story there for each of the rocks. It’s somewhat based on, you know, I researched the, the cosmic chemical information, the, the planetary processes, and then some of the cultural stories, and work with the curators to, to express something that’s, that might invigorate your imagination.

Host: And in case we haven’t made the distinction often enough, these are, are images not just of rocks from Earth’s Moon, but meteorites that have been found in Antarctica…

Erika Blumenfeld: Correct.

Host:…and maybe someday other meteorites or other cosmic stuff that has been found and returned to Earth and, maybe someday, from other planets.

Erika Blumenfeld: Yes indeed. I mean, we are, yes, I mean, you’re exactly right. So the, the meteorite collection has rocks that fell to Earth but they originate from Mars, or they originate from the Moon or, the asteroid Vesta. And then other unknown planetary bodies that smashed up and are now fragments.

Host: Source unknown.

Erika Blumenfeld: Source unknown, or source sort-of-known, like they know, they know, you know, they know chemically that it’s a, may relate to a particular planet body type but they don’t know what that planet body is, but they, they can correlate it to other fragments from the, that that same type of, of asteroid. But, but yes, you’re exactly right. We are looking forward to, to current and, and future missions. So the Astromaterials project and team right now is currently working on small sample, developing technologies for, for small sample imaging. So by small sample I mean anywhere from like a millimeter to, you know, maybe 12 millimeters, because a lot of the, the current and future missions are, are proposing to, or, or are returning samples that are within that, that scale, and so it’s an entirely different scale than the one that we have created for the…

Host: Big Moon rocks.

Erika Blumenfeld: Yeah, exactly. So we’re, we’re avidly working on that in the hopes of, of being able to share rocks from OSIRIS-REx next year when they, when they return, and, you know, even Hayabusa2, which, which has already landed.

Host: Right.

Erika Blumenfeld: And then, and then we’ll see; there’s still Mars and Artemis coming down the pike.

Host: You got any sense of how much the website is being accessed, and by whom?

Erika Blumenfeld: Yes, to some degree. I mean, it’s hard to, to track some of those numbers. But you know, we, we know it’s tens of thousands of people.

Host: OK.

Erika Blumenfeld: And we know that, you know, it, the, the…the reach of the project is just starting to come back to us now. In fact, we’re about to launch a new section on the, on the website that we are calling SEEN: Science, Engagement, Education, and News. And so each of these will be, you know, places where Astromaterials 3D is being seen in the world. Like, there, we have scientific papers that are being published using the data that we have publicly available, so, so that’s important that, you know, because this was funded through, through a NASA research grant and it is within the public domain, all of the data that we’ve collected is publicly available through the website. So anybody can download a full resolution or a web resolution 3D model of any of the rocks, and you can also download the XCT data of any of the rocks that we have, have taken XCT data of. So, that’s huge because it means that the research community has full access and, but also we have artists who are, who are using the models to create works and, you know, gamers who are ingesting the 3D models into virtual worlds. In fact, that’s happening here at the center for astronaut training and, and that sort of thing. So, so it’s, it’s, it was fun when we first launched in 2020, there were, there were articles all over the world in, in every language. And so, it’s been really fun to be able to see the world interact with this.

Host: I’ve played around in there some myself, and I don’t understand the scientific part of it but the images are, are just fascinating to look at. And congratulations on, on what you’ve done with all of that; be looking forward to see more…

Erika Blumenfeld: Thank you.

Host:…from other places. Erika Blumenfeld and Jeremy Kent, thank you for coming and talking with us about this, this great project.

Erika Blumenfeld: Thank you so much, Pat.

Jeremy Kent: Yes, thank you for having us.


Host: It was December 1972 — 50 years ago, give or take — when Apollo 17 astronauts Gene Cernan and Jack Schmitt left the surface of the Moon. The flights of the Apollo program concluded, but the scientific discoveries out of that program have never stopped. Scientists have studied the lunar samples retrieved during Apollo consistently over the years. In early 2022, an original Apollo 17 sample container was opened for the first time to provide new samples that could be examined using methods that didn’t exist back then. And today there is new technology that makes it possible for anyone with an internet connection to get a closeup look at samples from the Moon and meteorites recovered in Antarctica. You can check it out at; that’s the numeral “3,” Astromaterials 3D. The link is in the transcript on our site. I’ll remind you that you can go online to keep up with all things NASA at In fact, you can get all the NASA news you want delivered to you every week: go to to sign up for the NASA newsletter. You can find the full catalog of all of our podcast episodes by going to and scrolling to our name. And you can find all of the other NASA podcasts right there at the same spot where you can find us, This episode was recorded on October 18, 2022. Thanks to Will Flato, Heidi Lavelle, Belinda Pulido, Jaden Jennings, and Chelsey Ballarte for their help with the production, and to Erika Blumenfeld and Jeremy Kent for their work on this project and for letting us all in on the story. We’ll be back next week.