In February 1971 American astronaut Alan Shepard was gathering samples on the Moon’s surface. And in the midst of his adventure he noticed a rock that was more common than any other in sight. Shepard and his accomplice Edgar Mitchell then managed to get the boulder aboard their spacecraft. The men then aimed to take the stone home for analysis – hopefully to unlock some of its incredible secrets.
This particular piece of space rock was officially called 14321, but it is more commonly known as Big Bertha. And we can see just how it picked up this moniker if we consider its size. The stone was much larger than any other collected during this mission – weighing in at almost 20 pounds.
Of course, Shepard recognized that Big Bertha was an important specimen all those years ago, but it wouldn’t be until nearly half a century later that all its secrets were finally revealed. A piece of research published 48 years down the line put forth an incredible theory. Big Bertha, it seems, has an even stranger origin story than anyone could have predicted.
Shepard and Mitchell had been a part of the Apollo 14 mission, which was the third undertaking to touch down upon the Moon. And throughout its duration, crew members from Apollo 14 walked along the surface of the natural satellite on two separate occasions.
The Apollo 14 mission’s leader was Shepard (the first American to reach space, but not the moon) with Mitchell and Stuart Roosa making up the rest of the three-man team. The trio left Earth on the final day of January 1971 from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center. February 1971 would prove to be the strangest month in any of their lives.
The Apollo 14 mission was focused on an area of the Moon called Fra Mauro. This is a crater which took its name from an Italian monk and cartographer who lived during the 1400s. Furthermore, the bowl isn’t exactly insignificant in size; it has a diameter measuring up at around 50 miles. Soon, the astronauts would see it for themselves.
Shepard and his crew reached the Moon five days after launch and subsequently touched down on its surface. Then, two of the team members stepped out to explore after around five hours of waiting. This pair consisted of Shepard and Mitchell – with Roosa staying aboard their spacecraft.
Shepard and Mitchell raised an American flag upon the ground during their first excursion on the Moon. This was achieved by Mitchell beating a pole into the lunar surface. The pair also set up a number of high-tech instruments which would collect information for scientists to then pore over.
Meanwhile, Shepard and Mitchell traveled around quite a bit on their second excursion onto the Moon’s surface. According to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, the pair covered almost 2 miles of territory over 4 hours and 20 minutes. This time, however, they were exploring a place known as Cone Crater.
During their mission, the Apollo 14 crew managed to retrieve some samples of various materials found on the Moon. Furthermore, they conducted no less than ten experiments while they were there. Plus, the team managed to snap some amazing photographs – ultimately allowing all of us on Earth to see what it looks like up there.
The Apollo 14 team subsequently fired off from the Moon on February 6. They then set their sights on Earth once again and arrived back after three days – drifting down from the sky and into the Pacific Ocean. Their landing was thankfully a safe one, though they were slightly off target.
Of course, the three astronauts hadn’t returned to Earth without anything to show for it. They’d actually managed to bring back more than 90 pounds of lunar material to our planet. Unsurprisingly to scientists, most of these rocks were breccias, which are stones made up of older fragmented materials.
You see, the Moon’s surface has been exposed to numerous impacts over time. Astronomical objects have frequently smashed into the natural satellite – breaking down many rocks in the process. Then, the pressure and high temperatures causes the fragments to fuse together and form breccias.
In some instances, the individual pieces of stone that make up breccias can also be defined as breccias in their own right. If we bear this in mind, we can see how complex these stones can be, and it illustrates just how much information they can potentially reveal to scientists.
However, the Apollo 14 astronauts also brought some samples of basalt back to Earth. This rock has a dark color and is formed after molten magma cools and hardens. Furthermore, these particular specimens retrieved from the Moon during the Apollo 14 mission are thought to be at least four billion years old, according to the Lunar and Planetary Institute.
But there was a particularly special boulder among the bounty of stones brought to Earth by the Apollo 14 crew. This was, of course, Big Bertha, which was noted for the first time by Shepard on February 6. Immediately, the astronaut seemed to realize that this stone was important.
Shepard subsequently reported Big Bertha to his colleagues back on Earth after setting eyes upon it. NASA notes that he said, “There’s a football-size rock, Houston, coming out of this area, which will not be bagged. It appears to be the prevalent rock of the boulders of the area. Got it?”
The stone was sizable and heavy – weighing in at almost 20 pounds. It was, therefore, something of a struggle for Shepard and Mitchell to bring it on board their spacecraft. After all, their space suits wouldn’t exactly have been the most flexible of outfits. But the pair managed to do it anyway.
However, it was quite some time before a study emerged which really painted a picture of Big Bertha’s significance. This finally happened, though, in 2019 – some 48 years after the rock was first discovered by Shepard. But the wait may well have been worth it for any scientists concerned with the study of the Moon.
This specific project was headed up by two figures associated with the Swedish Museum of Natural History – professor Alexander Nemchin and Jeremy Bellucci. Put simply, the pair analyzed Big Bertha and found that the rock had a number of unusual features.
It appears that Big Bertha had formed in circumstances that you wouldn’t have generally expected to find up on the Moon. Moreover, its components – made up of feldspar, zircon and quartz – are said to be rare on the natural satellite. So, what exactly are the implications of these strange details?
Well, a pair of theories quickly come into focus when we consider the strange features of Big Bertha. According to NASA, the first suggests that the Moon may have been in an unexpected state when the boulder came into being. If conditions on the Moon were once different to what they are now, then perhaps that’s why Big Bertha formed the way that it did.
The second theory, however, suggests that Big Bertha wasn’t actually formed on the Moon at all. This line of thinking argues that it was created somewhere else entirely and somehow sent soaring into space, where it ultimately crashed into the Moon. But where could the rock have developed? Well, the primary suspect is Earth.
It might be difficult to imagine that Big Bertha formed on Earth, but the theory could actually ring true. For instance, a space chemistry expert at Florida State University called Munir Humayun seems to believe that it’s possible. The researcher told Science in 2019, “It’s a very provocative conclusion, but it could be right.”
David Kring is a moon geologist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in the Texan city of Houston. He is also the author of the Big Bertha research, which was published in Earth and Planetary Science Letters in January 2019. According to Science, Kring said, “It is an extraordinary find that helps paint a better picture of early Earth and the bombardment that modified our planet during the dawn of life.”
But how did a rock from Earth end up on the Moon? Well, boulders from the latter often get fired towards our planet, and the reverse is also likely. As William Bottke from Colorado’s Southwest Research Institute put it to New Scientist, “Earth’s been hit by a lot of very big things. And it’s conceivable that some of those impacts have ejected material far enough away that it’s been able to escape the clutches of Earth and make it to the Moon.”
So, it seems very likely that Big Bertha was formed on Earth. The specific conditions required to create the stone would only have been possible at about 100 miles beneath the Moon’s surface, Bellucci claimed in the report. From this great depth, it’s extremely unlikely that a rock would have been dug up and fired to Earth after an impact.
And there’s more evidence to suggest that Big Bertha is a rock deriving from the Earth. It’s been claimed that the boulder actually bears a striking similarity to rocks you’d find being created by magma on our planet. So, it seems that the rock was actually brought back to its birthplace by the Apollo 14 team.
As we mentioned earlier, Big Bertha is believed to be at least 4 billion years old – making it one of the oldest rocks ever found on Earth. And the discovery could also potentially reveal more about the state of our planet’s earlier days. After all, Earth is thought to have come together only 500 million years before this.
It might seem amazing that a boulder found on the Moon could actually reveal more about the Earth than rocks found here in the first place. But it actually makes sense when you think about it. You see, conditions on the Moon are much more stable than on Earth, and so rocks have a better chance of surviving through the ages.
In fact, it’s possible that the Moon is the best candidate for finding materials that can tell us more about the early Earth. Of course, rocks from our planet found on the natural satellite are few and far between. But over time they would have been mixed throughout the Moon’s own materials, and so it may be comparatively easy to find them.
Big Bertha is of course a fascinating discovery, but it isn’t actually the oldest formation ever discovered. That honor goes to some crystalized zircon samples which were uncovered in the west of Australia. These minerals are thought to be about 4.4 billion years old, which means they formed just 150 millions years after the planet itself.
The discovery in Australia implies that the Earth’s crust was created long before scientists had ever realized before. One of the people involved in a study focused on these zircon crystals which was reported in Nature Geoscience elaborated on this idea in a statement. In professor John Valley’s words, “That age is 300 million years older than the oldest previously dated age [of other crystals], and only 100 million years after the magma ocean.”
The zircon samples discovered in the western regions of Australia were apparently once part of a larger boulder. Over time, then, they were modified into new shapes and forms. And as David Kring himself has suggested, this larger stone and its zircons would have been created during the same period of time.
Kring told Science, “We’re sure it’s a complete rock.” In fact, it’s thought to be roughly as advanced in age as any other rock found here on our planet. The publication added that these other aged stones have been found in parts of the world such as Greenland and Canada.
But in Big Bertha’s case, many scientists believe it was created on Earth and sent crashing into the Moon. Though William Bottke is skeptical, telling New Scientist, “What they’ve pointed out is an interesting inconsistency and they’ve pointed out a possible hypothesis. And now we get to figure out whether it holds water or not.”
Of course, more lunar samples will need to be collected before we can say for sure that Big Bertha came from Earth. If rocks are discovered on the Moon that are made up of components not usually associated with the natural satellite, then we may have an answer. It would suggest, after all, that they came from our planet.
The scientific implications could be great if we can confirm that Big Bertha is indeed from our planet. It would support the theory that Earth has at some point in its history been smashed by astronomical objects so hard that its own rocks were fired into space. It also suggests that the Earth’s continents were forming before it was previously thought.
According to Kring, it’s likely that researchers will now seek to analyze all the rocks that have been brought back to Earth from the Moon. Only a small amount of these fragments have apparently ever been investigated appropriately. So, who knows what secrets about the early planet they might shed light on?
The future of this particular method of scientific investigation is quite bright, it would seem. At least, that’s how Kring sees it. As he put it to Science, “I think we are going to get a little library of fragments of the early Earth emerging in the next few years.”