Apollo 11: The Hull Connection – When Moon Dust came to Hull

Apollo 11: The Hull Connection – by Geoffrey Collier

How often the involvement of Hull in historically significant events goes unnoticed elsewhere.  I was reminded of this by the recent fiftieth anniversary of the first humans landing on the moon.  At the time, the televising of the event filled a world-wide audience with an unprecedented shared sense of awe and wonder – and there was a memorable Hull postscript.

Considerable forethought and planning had been undertaken by NASA as to how best to investigate the samples of lunar material expected to be retrieved.  The scientific involvement of friendly nations was welcomed, and this included the participation of Professor G F J Garlick (Head of the Department of Physics) and his team at Hull.

John Garlick was a renowned solid-state physicist and his group was one of about 150 that received small samples (about one gram initially) for examination.  One of the properties of the ‘moon dust’ that he proposed to explore was the material’s reflectivity.  Our ability to see the moon from Earth stems from the reflectance of a small proportion of the sun’s light by material on the moon’s surface.

Professor Garlick’s interest in reflectivity included the possibility that the lunar material might reflect ‘light’ in the ultraviolet region of the spectrum.  However, he had no facilities in the Physics Department for studying diffuse reflectance spectra in the ultraviolet.  My laboratory, in the Department of Chemistry, did.

Thus it was that, In late 1969, as the Senior Experimental Officer for Spectroscopy in the Department of Chemistry at Hull, I was briefly entrusted with the powdered sample from the Apollo 11 mission.  The conditions on which NASA had supplied the material were extremely strict at that time.  Only non-destructive techniques were to be used and, after examination, the material was to be returned in its entirety, uncontaminated as supplied.  This placed a significant restriction on the analytical methods that might be applied.

Sadly, and as might perhaps have been expected from its blackish appearance, the material, as supplied, reflected no measurable proportion of the uv radiation – effectively all of it was absorbed.  In normal circumstances the next step would have been to reduce the absorption by diluting and dispersing a finely ground portion of the sample in a suitable inert medium such as (white) magnesium oxide.  A reflectance spectrum of such a mixture might well have revealed those frequencies at which uv radiation was being selectively absorbed and, conversely, other frequency regions at which low levels of reflection from the original sample might be occurring.  The fact that such a procedure was absolutely forbidden was extremely frustrating.  The uv measurements therefore yielded no helpful information, nor were those later carried out on samples brought back by Apollo 12 any more fruitful.  The possibility that I might also have examined the material by infrared spectroscopy (my particular specialisation) was similarly precluded by the same aforementioned restrictions.  The lunar samples were to be treated with as much veneration as holy relics. 

Nevertheless, the presence of ‘moon dust’ in Hull certainly caught the imagination of the general public, many of whom queued patiently to have sight of these rather nondescript black granules when the material was briefly placed on general exhibition later in the year.  Not everyone was impressed, however.  Professor George Gray (of liquid crystal fame) commented that he had scraped more interesting looking stuff from the bottom of his pipe!

The Chemistry Department’s recording spectrophotometer, as used for measurements in the ultraviolent and visible regions of the spectrum in 1969. This picture shows the instrument as utilised for absorbance/transmittance measurements. For reflectance measurements (as on the lunar samples) the sample compartment (the penultimate module on the right) was replaced by an alternative unit with a slightly different external appearance.

About Geoffrey Collier

­Geoffrey Collier is a graduate of the University of London in Physics and Chemistry.  He is a Chartered Chemist and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry.  After three early appointments in industry he moved to the University of Durham, becoming Senior Experimental Officer for Chemical Spectroscopy.  In 1965 he was appointed to a similar post at Hull, where he contributed experimental data to numerous publications.  From 1982 he held the administrative role of Laboratory Manager.

In retirement he has pursued historical interests, graduating from Hull with an MA in History in 2012.  He became founder-chairman of the Swanland Heritage Centre the following year.

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