Geologists Team First in Hong Kong to Retrieve Lunar Samples

The geologists at The University of Hong Kong (HKU) have achieved a historic feat by obtaining 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, Faculty of Science, the team obtained approval from the China National Space Administration's Lunar Exploration and Space Engineering Centre to study the lunar soil samples. Dr Qian personally travelled to Beijing to retrieve the samples, which weigh 822.6 milligrams in total. These lunar samples offer valuable insights into the Moon's geological and thermal history and its connection to the formation and evolution of planetary bodies in the Solar System. The achievement by the HKU team underscores the university's growing contributions to China's lunar and planetary exploration efforts.

'This is a dream come true for us and Hong Kong's space science community,' said Qian, who is eager to analyse the samples using state-of-the-art instruments at the university. 'We hope to reveal the secrets of the Moon and gain insights into the early Earth, which could have important implications for our understanding of the Solar System and beyond.'

Previous Study on the Chang'e-5 Landing Site Paves the Way

Dr Qian is making waves in the field of planetary geology with his exceptional research on the Chang'e-5 landing site. Having published the first paper documenting the site and constructing a complete picture, he has been focusing on different aspects such as regolith properties, volcanic history and the provenance of lunar soils. His research work has been published in top-tier journals and widely cited, with over 400 citations, solidifying his position as an emerging expert. Recently, Dr Qian joined HKU as a postdoctoral fellow after obtaining his doctoral degree in Planetary Geology from China University of Geosciences.

Drawing on years of research on the Moon, the most exhilarating moment of his research career was an exciting discovery regarding the latest volcanic activity on the Moon's surface – he discovered 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 within the Procellarum KREEP Terrane, a chemical anomaly province known for its elevated heat-producing elements and lunar volcanic deposits. Upon analysing the samples collected from this region, 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 Dr Qian's prediction and has reshaped our understanding of lunar history. It has also raised the question: how did the young volcanism originate?

Dr Qian had been working tirelessly on this question, using remote sensing techniques to explore the volcanic history of the Chang'e-5 landing site. His previous research proposed that the Chang'e-5 basalts originated from the source vent of Rima Sharp, whose channel is only ~15 km from the landing site. Rima Sharp is a lunar sinuous rille whose formation required tons of lavas and was highly likely to be sampled by Chang'e-5.

Gearing up for Insights into Moon's Volcanic History and Evolution of Planetary Bodies in the Solar System

After joining HKU, Dr Qian recognised the potential of the support and resources available at the university to make progress in understanding young lunar volcanism with samples. When Dr Qian learned about the sixth batch of lunar research samples is open for application earlier this year, he swiftly mobilised scientists in the department to join his application. 'I knew this was an opportunity we could not miss for the further development of lunar science at HKU and with our collaborators throughout Hong Kong,' said Dr Qian.

With the support of Dr Joseph MICHALSKI of the Department of Earth Sciences, an expert with extensive experience in planetary geology and mineralogy, Dr Qian formed a team to apply for the lunar samples. Other members of the department included Professor Guochun ZHAO, a renowned geologist specialising in tectonic processes and the evolution of the Earth's lithosphere; Dr Weiran LI, a volcanologist specialising in magmatism, volatile cycling, and volcanic hazards; Professor Min SUN, a prominent geochemist focusing in the evolution of old continents; Professor Jian ZHANG, a structural geologist with expertise in crustal growth and tectonic evolution; and Dr Yiliang LI, an astrobiologist whose research centres in the search for life beyond Earth.

Now, armed with the returning samples and his previous research, Dr Qian and the team can link remote sensing and laboratory studies to unravel the secrets behind the lunar basalts and address the question that has puzzled scientists about the origins of young volcanism on the Moon. The team aims to use petrological-volcanological and spectroscopic techniques to reconstruct and study lunar magmas' generation, ascent, and eruption, focusing on the evolution of volatiles in the lunar soil samples. By analysing the volatiles in the samples, the team hopes to gain insights into the history of lunar late volcanism and the distribution and evolution of volatiles in the Moon's magma system, providing valuable information about the Moon's geological and thermal history and its connection to the formation and evolution of the Solar System in the future.

Dr Qian's supervisor Dr Joseph Michalski established the Planetary Spectroscopy and Mineralogy Lab at HKU, with the aim of providing laboratory support for space missions. He stated that the successful acquisition of lunar samples from the Chang'e-5 mission proved the value of the laboratory and expressed his hope for future collaborations in sample research. He said, 'We are also proud to work with our collaborators at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University and other universities in HK to build a strong space research community, that might help with our future collaborations and explorations.'

Dr Qian expressed that he is thrilled to be part of the effort to explore the Moon, Mars, and beyond. He stated, 'I believe that space exploration is crucial for humanity's future. It is an exciting time to be involved in this field, and I hope our research will inspire future generations to continue exploring and expanding our knowledge of the vast space.'

In addition to studying the samples collected by Chang'e-5, Dr Qian eagerly anticipates the upcoming Chang'e-6 mission to the lunar farside. He hopes to conduct further research on lunar geology based on China's future lunar missions, especially the crewed ones and the International Lunar Research Station, which could provide valuable insights into the formation and evolution of the Moon and lead human's way to other worlds.

Rewilding Giant Tortoises Engineers Plant Communities

A groundbreaking study conducted by Galápagos Conservancy scientists has shed light on the transformative effects of reintroducing giant tortoises to island ecosystems. The research, published in the leading biodiversity conservation journal Conservation Letters, demonstrates that the restoration of these megafauna has profound consequences for plant communities and wildlife at both local and landscape scales.

Trophic rewilding, which involves reintroducing large-animal populations to revive top-down interactions and reverse environmental degradation, has gained increasing attention as a strategy for restoring ecosystems. While the importance of megafauna restoration is well recognized, the impact on ecosystems once population restoration occurs has yet to be studied.

The study by Galápagos Conservancy scientists Washington Tapia Aguilera and James P. Gibbs focused on a population of giant tortoises reintroduced to the arid island of Española in Galápagos. These tortoises have recovered from a low of 15 individuals to 3,000 today. Through careful monitoring and extensive vegetation mapping, the researchers discovered significant changes in plant communities have occurred in response to the restoration of the tortoises. At the local scale, the researchers used fenced exclosures to examine the effects of giant tortoise activity on plant community composition over eight years. The results indicated that the presence of reintroduced giant tortoises led to a shift in the ecosystem towards grasses, with a reduction in woody plants through browsing and trampling.

These local impacts were manifested at the landscape scale. By assessing the extent of woody vegetation over 15 years in areas with varying densities of re-established tortoises, the researchers found that a threshold density of 1-2 tortoises per hectare halted the incursion of woody plants, resulting in reduced dominance of trees in areas where tortoises had become established.

These findings have significant implications for ecosystem restoration and conservation efforts around the world. The restoration of giant tortoise populations has shaped plant communities and triggered cascading effects on many components of biodiversity on the island. By understanding the ecological consequences of reintroducing mega-reptiles like giant tortoises, conservationists can better inform and implement successful rewilding initiatives elsewhere.

This study represents a crucial step in understanding trophic rewilding and its potential to restore ecosystems. It highlights the importance of considering the unique characteristics of tropical island ecosystems which were once dominated by large-bodied reptiles and the transformative effects that restoring these megafauna can have on these fragile environments.

About: Washington Tapia Aguilera is a conservation scientist specializing in the Galápagos Islands and Director General of Conservando Galápagos, Galápagos Conservancy's operating arm in the archipelago. James P. Gibbs is Acting President of Galápagos Conservancy and a distinguished professor at the State University of New York's College of Environmental Science and Forestry.

The study was conducted by Galápagos Conservancy in collaboration with the Galápagos National Park Directorate with funding from NASA.

NASA Hosts OSIRIS-REx Sample Lab Media Day

Ahead of the first asteroid sample collected by the U.S. arriving on Earth in September, media are invited on Monday, July 24, to meet mission scientists and see NASA's newly-built OSIRIS-REx Sample Curation Laboratory where the agency will study the sample at its Johnson Space Center in Houston.

The asteroid Bennu, the target of the OSIRIS-REx (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification and Security – Regolith Explorer) mission, is a carbonaceous asteroid whose regolith may record the earliest history of our solar system. The Bennu sample may contain the molecular precursors to the origin of life and Earth's oceans, and its study also will help scientists understand planet formation.

The media day will include opportunities to speak with subject matter experts and capture still and moving imagery at the curation lab. Full interviews with subject matter experts will be available after the lab tour concludes.

U.S. and international media interested in participating must request accreditation no later than 5 p.m. CDT Friday, July 7, by contacting the NASA Johnson newsroom at: 281-483-5111 or jsccommu@nasa.gov. Media accreditation is limited due to space.

Johnson houses the world's largest collection of astromaterials from the solar system under one roof, including samples from asteroids, comets, Mars, the Moon, Sun, and dust from other stars. Scientists use world-class laboratories to perform research on planetary materials and the space environment to investigate the origin and evolution of our solar system and beyond.

Research Brain MRI biomarkers for Parkinsons

icometrix, world leader in imaging artificial intelligence (AI) solutions for people with neurological conditions, has been awarded a grant from The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research (MJFF) to continue efforts in research towards brain MRI biomarkers for Parkinson's disease (PD). The research is led in collaboration with co-principal investigator Kathleen Poston, MD, professor of Neurology & Neurological Sciences at Stanford Medicine.

Nearly 10 million people worldwide are living with PD. The most common symptoms include motor problems such as shaking, stiffness as well as difficulties with walking and balance. In addition, approximately 30% of patients with PD develop cognitive problems in the early stages of the disease, with a life-long risk of up to 80%. However, PD is extremely diverse with no two people experiencing the disease in the same way. This highlights the need for a personalized prognosis and treatment approach.

"PD monitoring is typically performed based on clinical scores that are subjective and do not allow for a fine-grained evaluation of disease characteristics. Early and specific prediction of the disease progression is therefore challenging. It also restricts our understanding of the underlying neurodegenerative pathophysiology and thereby hampers research on disease modifying therapies in an already highly diverse PD population," explains Annemie Ribbens, VP Science & Trials at icometrix. "With this research, we aim to evaluate brain MRI patterns of PD patients that identify, early on, patients at risk for cognitive or motor problems."

This grant from The Michael J. Fox Foundation supports the development of a regulatory cleared solution to automatically analyze brain MRI scans to improve monitoring of PD patients in clinical routine, as well as for patient selection and outcome assessment in multi-center drug development trials. This PD-specific MRI solution will be added to the CE-marked* and FDA-cleared icobrain portfolio of icometrix that also contains solutions for Multiple Sclerosis, Alzheimer's disease, epilepsy, stroke and traumatic brain injury.

The first promising results of this project were presented at ADPD on April 1st 2023. Brain MRI scans from Stanford and MJFF's landmark, Parkinson's Progression Markers Initiative (PPMI),were evaluated in terms of volumetric patterns and correlated to corresponding clinical scores for motor and cognitive function. The results show that regional brain volumetry assessment can serve as an important biomarker in prediction and differentiation of PD patients at risk for motor and/or cognitive disability progression.

Founded in 2011, icometrix (Leuven, Belgium | Boston, MA, USA) strives for data-driven insights and personalized patient care, supported by AI. icometrix offers a portfolio of eight regulatory approved AI solutions to assist healthcare with various challenges; icobrain extracts data from brain MRI and CT scans for the radiological reporting and clinical management of neurological disorders such as multiple sclerosis, brain trauma, epilepsy, stroke, dementia, and Alzheimer's disease. icompanion, a digital platform, and mobile app helps people with MS and their care team to monitor clinical symptoms and treatments efficiently and objectively.

Today, icometrix is internationally active and integrated into more than 100 clinical practices. In addition, icometrix supports pharmaceutical companies in phase I-III trials as well as in Real-World Evidence (RWE) studies through imaging and data services, and digital health strategy.