This past summer, Annette Hilton ’17 spent 10 weeks researching a topic that was, quite literally, otherworldly.
Through a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) funded and run by the National Science Foundation, Hilton, a geology major, worked with Juliane Gross, a former NASA scientist, to decipher the mystery and composition of a suspected lunar meteorite and confirm its origin. Hilton and Gross were loaned a small part of the meteorite which had originally landed in northwest Africa. Through a series of geochemical tests — some taking up to three days to complete — the pair eventually determined that the meteorite was lunar and classified it as a rock type.
A typical day of research was monotonous, but necessary. The majority of Hilton’s time was spent putting data into Excel worksheets to make sense of the long strings of numbers.
“After we got the raw data, most of it was data rejection and crunching,” said Hilton, mentioning long periods of time spent “staring at Excel” while inputting long strings of data.
While this process might seem uninteresting, the end result measured the quantity of specific elements in the sample, which in turn allowed the researchers to determine what types of minerals it possessed, and eventually build a clearer picture of the meteorite’s composition.
Knowledge of its structure even allowed Hilton and Gross to pinpoint a possible location for the rock’s origin. Because of the high magnesium content found in the sample, it may have come from the far side of the Moon, an area unexplored by human astronauts and therefore less understood. In a news article published on The College of Wooster website, Hilton mentioned the importance of the geological structure of the Moon, as understanding it may help scientists develop several hypotheses. Among the most prominent of these is the Giant Impact Hypothesis which states that the Earth and the Moon were formed at the same time, when a Mars-sized planet collided with a “proto-Earth,” breaking large chunks of both planetary bodies apart and eventually forming the Earth and Moon that we know now.
While Hilton was not initially knowledgeable about lunar geology in particular, being more versed and focused on terrestrial geology, her research gave her an interesting insight into different forms of the larger field. Her work with Gross eventually led to the official sanction and classification of the meteorite, and the two will present their findings at the Lunar and Planetary Sciences Conference over Spring Break. Hilton and Gross also plan to publish their findings in several academic journals.