NASA opens sealed Apollo lunar sample

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NASA scientists opened a previously sealed lunar rock and soil sample that astronauts collected on Apollo 17, the space agency reported.

Researchers in Johnson Space Center’s Lunar Curation Laboratory opened the sample on Nov. 5. The event marks the first time NASA has opened an untouched Apollo mission sample in over 40 years.

Scientists aim to practice techniques with the Apollo era material that they will use to study future lunar samples collected on the Artemis mission.

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New Tools to Study Old Samples

In December 1972, Apollo 17 astronauts Gene Cernan and Jack Schmitt drove a four-centimeter-wide tube into the moon’s surface. They collected Tuesday’s newly opened sample with it, ID number 73002. They also took a second specimen, ID 73001. NASA plans to open it next year.

The mission marked the U.S. space agency’s final trip to the moon in a series of lunar journeys that followed Apollo 11’s legendary inaugural lunar landing.

In total, the Apollo 17 moon explorers spent 75 hours on the lunar surface. They gathered 243 pounds of material on the mission.

Fortunately, technology has advanced incredibly since then. Thus, NASA opened the sealed sample as part of the Apollo Next-Generation Sample Analysis (ANGSA) initiative.

Under the program, researchers are using cutting-edge technology and new tools to analyze the Apollo specimens. These advances weren’t available at the time the Apollo crew delivered their lunar collections back to Earth.

Moving forward, gaining information from the historic sample could help future Artemis explorers.

“We are able to make measurements today that were just not possible during the years of the Apollo program,” Dr. Sarah Noble, ANGSA program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington, said in a statement. “The analysis of these samples will maximize the science return from Apollo, as well as enable a new generation of scientists and curators to refine their techniques and help prepare future explorers for lunar missions anticipated in the 2020s and beyond.”

Preserving the Past to Forge into the Future

Scientists have already studied most of the Apollo program moon collections. Plus, many of them “are the subject of ongoing research.”

However, NASA decided to keep some samples sealed in their original containers, including the sample that scientists opened this week. These lunar materials remained untouched so future research teams could eventually open and examine them with better tools and technology than what existed in 1972.

“Opening these samples now will enable new scientific discoveries about the moon and will allow a new generation of scientists to refine their techniques to better study future samples returned by Artemis astronauts,” said Francis McCubbin, NASA’s astromaterials curator at Johnson.

Using advanced techniques like non-destructive 3D imaging, mass spectrometry, and ultra-high resolution microtomy will enable scientists to study the Apollo materials at an “unprecedented scale.”

Breaking the Seal

Sample processors Andrea Mosie, Charis Krysher, and Juliane Gross broke the seal on Apollo sample number 73002 on November 5.

The material filled the upper part of a 24-inch “drive tube.” Researchers will open the bottom portion, sample 73001, next year in January.

A lunar landslide deposited the rock and soil mixture near the Lara Crater at the Apollo 17 site. According to NASA, these samples “preserve the vertical layering within the lunar soil.” They also offer information about landslides on airless bodies like the moon and present “a record of the volatiles trapped within lunar regolith.”

To assist in opening the sample, researchers at the University of Austin used X-ray Computer Tomography (XCT) to scan a high-resolution 3D image of the regolith inside the tube. This process helped scientists understand the structure of the contents within the tube before unsealing the container. It will also help processors dissect and distribute the material to various research teams now that the sample is open.

Furthermore, the scan will protect fragile soil components from damage during opening and processing. Plus, it provides detailed images of individual grains and smaller samples called “rocklets.”

After X-raying it, processors used special tools to remove the samples from their tube inside a scientific glovebox filled with ultra-pure nitrogen. Next, they will divide the regolith into .25-inch segments. Doing this will help scientists understand the notable variation along the length of the sample’s core.

NASA hasn’t handled a drive tube like this one in over 25 years. Therefore, curation scientists spent the last several months practicing the process.

Multi-Generational Moon Study

Charis Krysher physically unsealed the tube on Tuesday. The proud sample processor was inspired to pursue a career in space while growing up hearing stories about Apollo missions.

“To be the one to open a sample that hasn’t been opened since it was collected on the moon is such an honor and heavy responsibility,” Krysher explained, “we’re touching history.”

Apollo astronauts sealed sample 73001 on the moon in a special vacuum container. They placed it in a second vacuum contained and sealed it again on Earth. Consequently, lunar gases got trapped inside the container with the regolith. Therefore, NASA will open that sample once scientists finalize their plan for separately capturing the moon’s gases.

Once 73001 is opened, teams will process and share it with ANGSA researchers like 73002.

NASA reported that multiple generations of scientists, engineers, and curators would study the samples together. So, veteran NASA team members will work with younger team members in the investigation. Some of them even analyzed the original Apollo samples.

Schmitt, the geologist and Apollo 17 astronaut who originally collected sample 73002, is notably active on the science team.

“The findings from these samples will provide NASA new insights into the moon, including the history of impacts on the lunar surface, how landslides occur on the lunar surface, and how the moon’s crust has evolved over time,” said Charles Shearer, science co-lead for ANGSA. “This research will help NASA better understand how volatile reservoirs develop, evolve, and interact on the moon and other planetary bodies.”

Overall, the cross-generational team hopes their findings will help future astronauts explore the lunar surface on the Artemis mission.