The near side of Earth's Moon, as seen using data from cameras aboard NASA's robotic Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft. Image: NASA

A slice of the Moon in Hong Kong

11 August 2023

For the first time, a group of scientists in Hong Kong have begun analysing samples taken from the Moon to unravel the secrets of its past.

Geologists at the University of Hong Kong (HKU) have obtained lunar soil samples collected by the Chinese lunar probe Chang’e-5 in 2020. This marks the first time that a Hong Kong research team has secured such samples.

Led by postdoctoral fellow Dr Yuqi Qian from the Department of Earth Sciences and Laboratory for Space Research, Faculty of Science, the team obtained approval from China National Space Administration’s Lunar Exploration and Space Engineering Centre to study these valuable specimens. Dr Qian personally travelled to Beijing to retrieve the samples, which weigh a total of 822.6 milligrams. They provide valuable insights into not only the Moon’s geological and thermal history but also its connection to planetary body formation and evolution within our Solar System.

Qian has already made an impact in planetary geology with his exceptional research on the Chang’e-5 landing site. He has published widely cited papers in top-tier journals. This made him an emerging expert within his field before he joined HKU as a postdoctoral fellow after obtaining his doctoral degree in Planetary Geology from the China University of Geosciences. “It was while at the China University of Geosciences that I got interested in planetary geology. Seeing China’s ambitious space programme to explore the Moon, and with the encouragement of my teachers, I realised I could do this kind of work like the scientists from sci-fi movies. I have always been interested in space”.

And his early years of research on the Moon culminated in his career highlight to date; the discovery that the eastern part of the pre-selected Chang’e-5 landing region contained one of the youngest mare basalts on the Moon.

Recognising the scientific significance of this finding, he proposed that Chang’e-5 should explore this region to collect these young basalts, which were younger than any previously returned lunar basalts.

In 2020, Chang’e-5 successfully landed on the lunar surface. Upon analysing the samples collected, scientists were stunned to discover that the basalts were 2.0 billion years old - almost 1 billion years younger than any previous lunar volcanic samples collected by Apollo or Luna missions.

This ground-breaking discovery confirmed Qian’s prediction and has reshaped our understanding of lunar history. It has also raised the questions: how did this young lunar volcanism originate? And when did volcanism end there?

“It’s still a mystery. Maybe it ended a billion years ago - which is young for the Moon! But we don’t know yet.”

Dr Qian examining a lunar sample in the Electron Probe Microanalyzer Lab. Image: HKU

When he joined HKU, Qian saw the potential offered by the support and resources of the university to dig deeper into the matter. So, when Qian learned that the sixth batch of lunar research samples from Chang’e-5, was to be opened for application earlier this year, he swiftly mobilised a talented group of scientists in the department to join his application.

He gained particular support from Dr Joseph Michalski of the Department of Earth Sciences, Dr Qian’s supervisor, who had established the Planetary Spectroscopy and Mineralogy Lab at HKU precisely to provide this kind of laboratory support for space missions.

“There’s a lot of potential for us to work across the university and to work with other universities in Hong Kong on different aspects of planetary science”, said Qian. “Space science is not just one discipline.”

Armed with the returned samples and his previous research, Qian and the team are looking forward to analysing these samples using state-of-the-art instruments available at his university.

We asked what made this work so important. “Looking at the state of the Earth,” replied Qian, “there’s a need for a Plan B. With the ambitions that exist to have a base on the Moon by the 2030s and perhaps even one on Mars by the 2050s, there’s a lot of work ahead for geologists. Some might even get to go into space.”

However, Qian’s feet remain on the ground. “Like others, I find the Moon very beautiful. But I am lucky enough to be able to appreciate its beauty via remote sensing and also have the Moon as a place of study which I can access using a telescope. And yes, I’m also looking forward to sampling the moon-cakes in Hong Kong this autumn.”