From the moon to the Earth

Assistant Professor of Physics John Bochanski brought a sampling of moon rocks into his classroom this semester
Adam Grybowski
Professor Bochanski examines objects from the moon with his student Gregory Peck.

Professor Bochanski examines objects from the moon with his student Gregory Peck.

Astronauts retrieved more than 800 pounds of rocks and soil from the moon during the Apollo missions in the late ’60s and early ’70s. The rocks played a key role in helping scientists understand not just the moon but the formation of Earth and the solar system. 

“The moon is the Rosetta Stone for our understanding of the solar system,” says Assistant Professor of Physics John Bochanski, who brought a sampling of moon rocks into his classroom this semester.

Most of the Apollo moon rocks are stored in the Lunar Sample Laboratory Facility at the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, but NASA distributes about 400 samples annually for various research and educational projects.

The rocks, which originally traveled 239,000 miles to Earth, arrived at Rider by certified mail in a sealed briefcase courtesy of the federal government. Some are more than 4 billion years old. They came in the form of slices embedded in acrylic disks.

“I wanted to motivate students and make them excited by allowing them to actually touch what we’ve been talking about in class,” Bohanski says. “I think it’s pretty inspiring.”

The most widely accepted theory of the moon’s origin argues that Earth was struck by a body the size of Mars 4.5 billion years ago, sending an explosion of debris into the atmosphere that coalesced into the moon. “A lot of evidence points in that direction, but it’s not a slam dunk,” says Bochanski, who received his bachelor’s at Villanova University and then completed his doctorate in astronomy at the University of Washington.

Though the moon rocks don't play a role in his research, having them in class helped drive home the lessons Bochanski, who joined Rider in the fall of 2014, wants students to learn. This spring, he began teaching physics 180 in addition to physics 200, where he has launched rockets outside of Science Hall as part of his curriculum.

In his astronomy class, Bochanski teaches that the lighter, brighter regions of the moon are called the highlands. Those heavily cratered regions reflect more light than the darker lowlands. On any given night, you can go outside, look at the moon and recognize the light and dark regions. Bringing pieces of the moon into the classroom allowed students to see Earth's satellite not from hundreds of thousands of miles away, but right in front of their eyes. “I hope this experience inspires them to dig deeper,” Bochanski says.

Earth is the only inner planet in the solar system that has a large moon. Without it, we would potentially suffer from an unstable climate and lack tides, which may have played a role in the formation of life, says Bochanski, who led a team that found the most distant stars ever observed in the Milky Way. Before that discovery, only seven stars had been identified beyond 400,000 light years away. The stars Bochanski helped locate are much farther away, existing at respective distances of 775,000 and 900,000 light years in the sparsely populated outer halo of the galaxy. In fact, they are so far from the sun that they lie about a third of the distance to the Andromeda Galaxy, the nearest spiral galaxy to the Milky Way.

“The discovery lends a unique perspective to humans on Earth and our place in the universe,” says Bochanski, adding that the finding could spur a rethinking of the model that predicts how the Milky Way was formed and evolved. The model scientists currently use does not predict a large quantity of stars at the distances of those recently uncovered.

Bochanski hopes that by giving students something tangible related to often abstract ideas will help them both value the moon and the Earth more deeply. “I want to give them a sense that our planet is a special place and they need to take care of it,” he says.