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Rock on!

CSUB geology prof and alum brings billions-year-old moon samples to campus

President Zelezny and Dr. Katie O'Sullivan with moon rocks

CSUB President Lynnette Zelezny and CSUB geologist Dr. Katie O’Sullivan pose with moon rocks billions of years old that NASA sent to the university so students could examine them first-hand. (Photos by Geology lecturer Brian Pitts)

Alumni Engagement Specialist

In a secret mission she’s only now allowed to talk about, Katie O’Sullivan asked NASA for the moon – and got it.

O’Sullivan, who teaches geology at CSUB and was one of our 2018 Alumni Rising Runners, arranged for the space agency to send the university moon rocks from Apollo lunar missions that were 3 to 4.5 billion years old.

When the samples were here for two weeks in late March, federal guidelines prohibited O’Sullivan and the Geological Sciences Department from advertising it. The university revealed the news last week.

NASA sent the university 12  thin sections of rocks sliced and polished thin enough for light to pass through the mineral crystals composing them, plus small pieces of rock and sediment embedded in plastic.

“For geologists, it’s great to be able to compare earth samples to extraterrestrial samples,” O’Sullivan said.

There are similarities and differences, she explained.

Examines the moon rocks

CSUB undergraduate geology major Ariel Espindola examines some of the moon rocks, which had to be kept in a safe while at the university.

There’s no atmosphere on the moon and therefore no drag on the dirt that spews from volcanos there. So those pieces of dirt are shaped as spheres.

On Earth, those volcanic pieces have an aerodynamic shape.

Earth’s oldest basalts – or dark volcanic rock –  are a few hundred million years old. The moon’s are a few billion years old.

And there’s no weathering on the moon, so its rocks are better preserved.

You can teach those lessons with words, but there’s nothing like the “cool factor” of actually showing moon rocks to students, O’Sullivan said.

“They were so excited,” she said. “Everyone showed up for class that day.”

Also showing up to see the rocks were O’Sullivan’s deans in the School of Natural Sciences, Mathematics and Engineering plus CSUB’s provost and president.

So how does one convince NASA to part for two weeks with priceless national treasurers, ones kept in a special temperature-controlled vault at the Johnson Space Center in Houston?

O’Sullivan had had experience handling moon rocks. After earning her bachelor’s degree in geology from CSUB in 2007, she went to Notre Dame for her doctorate and worked on samples astronauts brought back from Apollo 12, the second manned mission to the moon.

During an internship at NASA in 2008, Sullivan helped scope out potential landing sites for a future lunar mission. That mission was later scrapped.

A label reads, “If found, return to NASA.”

A label on the case carrying the moon rocks reads, “If found, return to NASA.”

You’d think billions-year-old moon rocks would arrive by special courier, but no. They came by FedEx, and O’Sullivan sent them back via USPS. She did have to keep them in a safe and compel her students to keep their presence a secret.

O’Sullivan was a little nervous handling the precious cargo.

“The samples are kept in delicate glass slides,” she said. “If they’d broken, I wouldn’t have been in trouble, but my heart would have broken.”

The experience wowed geology major Alexandria Garcia, according to the CSUB news release that broke the news.

“This opportunity helped me to realize how much more information there is to discover with geological studies, both on Earth and in our solar system,” she said. “It is an experience I will never forget.”

Now O’Sullivan must come up with another memorable experience for her students. She’s thinking about something with meteorites.

“But to me,” she said, “moon rocks are cooler.”