Bonnybridge’s intergalactic rock star is living her lunar dream

On July 20 the world celebrated the 50th anniversary of NASA’s Moon landings while a former pupil of Denny High School looked ahead to the next mission to the lunar surface.

By The Newsroom
Tuesday, 23rd July 2019, 5:16 pm
Former Denny High School pupil Tara Hayden, pictured left,  is now researching lunar rocks at the Open University
Former Denny High School pupil Tara Hayden, pictured left, is now researching lunar rocks at the Open University

Born in the mid 1990s, Tara Hayden may not have been around when Neil Armstrong first set foot on the Moon, but that did not stop her getting caught up in all the excitement of the Moon landing milestone.

She said: “I watched all the programmes on the television – it’s great to learn more about it and so amazing to see how far we have come. They are now talking about returning to the Moon by 2024.”

And there is a good chance the 23-year-old from Bonnybridge will actually be involved in that mission in some capacity thanks to a new partnership between the Open University and NASA.

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Tara gained a first class degree from the University of Glasgow in Earth Science and is now a post graduate researcher at the Open University in Milton Keynes studying for a PhD.

She has been sharing her love of lunar rocks and her enthusiasm and knowledge of space geology with television and radio audiences recently – appearing on BBC Look East and the BBC News Channel, as well as featuring on BBC Radio Scotland and BBC Radio 5 Live.

Tara once considered a career in journalism and enjoyed a period of work experience at The Falkirk Herald back in 2012. The study of geology had a hold on her though and her interest in the subject grew when she got her hands on a Martian meteorite.

“It was a like a step further – it was still geology, but it was space geology. During the final year of my undergraduate degree in Earth Science at the University of Glasgow, I was given the opportunity to carry out lab-based research on Martian nakhlite meteorites.

“I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of learning how to use the analytical equipment and felt privileged to be able to hold in my hands a piece of Mars. It surprised me every single day.

“I knew then I wanted to do further research on space materials, so my supervisor got put me in touch with someone at the Open University who recommended I apply for a few PhD positions on space materials.

“I had heard about the work the Open University Planetary Science department does, and felt excited about the possibility of working with these world class researchers.”

Led by Doctor Mahesh Anand, the Open University team has pioneered the search for water on the Moon over the last decade by analysing the Moon rocks returned to Earth by Apollo (NASA) missions in the 1960s and 1970s.

New techniques developed in the laboratories at the university have found much higher concentrations of water in some rocks than were evident in the original investigations.

Thanks to its expertise and instrumentation, the Open University is at the forefront of the search for water on the Moon as well as playing a lead role in steering the strategic way forward for its exploration both now and in the future.

Tara’s own research now focuses on the volatile elements in lunar meteorites – life-essential elements of carbon, nitrogen and water.

“This year I have had the opportunity to classify three brand new lunar meteorites, which I will be studying further in the coming years. This work has been possible because of the discovery in 2008 of significant amounts of water in lunar volcanic glass beads.

“Those findings lead to a re-analysis of returned Apollo samples, at the Open University and across the world, that have also found signs of water. However, the Apollo missions sampled a restricted area on the nearside of the Moon, so it is necessary to look at lunar meteorites’ water contents as these may come from areas unsampled by NASA, and provide a broader picture of the Moon’s water contents and history.”

Tara was part of the Open University team involved in the Edinburgh Science Festival in April this year, giving youngsters details about the exciting research the university is carrying out with NASA.

She said: “I would hope to work with NASA in the future, but the Open University is the leader in this sort of research – that’s the reason I came here – so I wouldn’t mind continuing to work here studying lunar rocks.

“We haven’t studied all the Apollo samples yet. All the rocks brought back by the Apollo missions were from the nearside of the Moon, but lunar meteorites can come from anywhere on the Moon, even the far side where no one has been yet.”

She admitted she would be first in the queue to follow in Aldrin and Armstrong’s footsteps if she was given that opportunity.

“I would absolutely love to analyse these rocks while I was actually on the Moon itself – and be able to look back at the Earth, which is such an amazing planet. I was inspired to go into space research because of the opportunity to learn more about the evolution of our solar system and contribute to the knowledge of humanity.

“Studying the Moon will help us to understand more about the history of life on Earth, and I can’t think of anything more exciting to be a part of. I’d encourage others to pursue research in space science because there is always more to learn.”

Visit www.open.ac.uk for more information.