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By  Hannah Kilmore 3 June 2024 3 min read

Key points

  • First found on the Moon by the Apollo 11 Mission in 1969, armalcolite is named for the three astronauts on that mission: Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins.
  • It is physically small and very rare, but it has since been found in a few places on Earth including Germany, USA, Greenland and Western Australia.
  • If we could find armalcolite in large enough quantities on the Moon, it could be a valuable source of metal and oxygen - two critical elements for supporting an extended human presence the Moon.

They found armalcolite in one of the lunar soil samples. The regolith, or soil sample, was collected from the Sea of Tranquillity on the Moon during the Apollo 11 Mission in 1969.

The name is derived from the names of the three astronauts on that mission, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins.

Rich in magnesium and iron, armalcolite is an opaque, bluish-grey titanium dioxide mineral. It is found in basalt rocks, some granites, lamproites, and kimberlites. It forms small, elongated crystals embedded in its matrix, the substance surrounding the crystals.

tiny and elongated, bluish, almost black coloured crystal growing in a bigger white, shiny crystal
Armalcolite, a titanium dioxide mineral forms tiny, elongated crystals embedded in its matrix ©

Despite coming from sources deep under the surface, the crystals are believed to have formed at low pressure and high temperatures but cooled very quickly.

Earthly samples are rare

More recently, armalcolite has been found on Earth. It's present in just a handful of places, including Greenland, Germany, the USA and Western Australia.

It is likely the mineral had not been noticed on Earth before, as it is so rare and small.

Dr Jane Hodgkinson is a geologist and Principal Research Scientist with our Mineral Resources team.

Every speck and grain from the original lunar samples were examined closely. The lunar sampling process taught us what to look for on Earth," Jane said. 

The untapped potential of armalcolite

The rarity of armalcolite means there are no obvious economic uses. However, it can withstand high temperatures and moderate abrasion. This together with its titanium content could make it useful, if we could find it in higher concentrations.

Research into its use as a catalyst, in semiconductors, or electronic applications might yield interesting results, but even so, finding more of the mineral is a challenge," Jane said. 

“What we can take away is that its presence tells us about the chemical and physical process and conditions that may have occurred during its formation.”

"Its presence on the Moon, for example, supports our understanding of early conditions, such as the lack of oxygen and other oxidizing gases when the mineral formed," Jane said. 

Testing space environments on Earth

When asked what she loves about armalcolite, Jane said it’s because of the association with the Moon.

“As a geologist, with space interests so close to heart, the Moon is always on my radar,” Jane said.

Jane has been working in our In-situ Resource Utilisation (ISRU) facility for nearly five years. The facility includes a lunar testbed that simulates some of the physical characteristics of the Moon’s surface, such as lunar dust. It provides a realistic testing ground for rovers and other equipment. 

CSIRO ISRU Facility lunar regolith chamber © 

The aim of the ISRU facility is to help space researchers develop tools to find resources in space that can support future space missions.

The facility is used by mining experts, automation and AI specialists. It includes a robotics playground for testing autonomous equipment and drones in different terrains. The ISRU facility offers expertise in mineral sensing, sorting, and processing, mineral characterisation labs and specialised manufacturing facilities.

The ISRU team is hosting an International Symposium on Robotics, AI and Automation in Space (i-SAIRAS) in November this year.

The overarching theme for the symposium this year is about exploring innovations in space science and technology, and how they link with advancements on Earth and their applications in space exploration.

Developing technology for space

The ISRU team is in the early days of developing equipment that may help identify, locate or process resources on other planetary bodies such as the Moon.

Dr Jane Hodgkinson and colleague Jessica Gray work in the In-Situ Resource Utilisation facility, which can simulate the physical characteristics of lunar soil known as regolith ©  CSIRO

"We are developing technology for sensing, sifting and sorting regolith, which is likely to detect armalcolite," Jane said.

"We now have an astrometallurgy expert on our team, and with enough armalcolite and similar minerals such as ilmenite, we might be able to produce metal and oxygen – two critical elements for supporting extended stays on the Moon."

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