NASA scientists recently opened a sample tube of rock and soil collected on the moon during Apollo 17. The tube remained unopened for nearly 47 years, and it is the first time NASA scientists have broken in to a fresh moon sample in over four decades. Researchers are using the lunar dirt to test next-generation sampling tools in preparation for the next time humans fly to the moon.
The sample tube holds about 15 ounces of lunar regolith, or loose rocky material from the surface. Apollo 17 astronauts Gene Cernan and Jack Schmitt collected the material during mission in December of 1972, NASA’s last crewed mission to the moon. The sample, 73002, was taken from a two-foot-long tube that the astronauts drove into a landslide deposit in a feature called the Lara Crater. A second sample, 73001, is scheduled to be opened in January
Both will be analyzed as part of the Apollo Next-Generation Sample Analysis, or ANGSA, initiative.
“We are able to make measurements today that were just not possible during the years of the Apollo program,” Sarah Noble, ANGSA program scientist, says 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.”
Sample 73002 has been sealed since it was collected, but not in vacuum conditions. Before removal, researchers at the University of Texas, Austin, created a high-resolution 3D image of the dust and crushed rock within the tube. The sample is being removed from the tube using special tools inside an enclosure filled with ultra-pure nitrogen. The sample will then be divided into quarter-inch segments and distributed to various research teams.
The second sample, 73001, was collected in a special vacuum-sealed tube. The researchers hope they will be able to capture and analyze any gases released from that sample when it is opened early next year.
Last March, NASA announced that nine labs would receive bits of the samples. They will look at various properties, including how volatile molecules, like water, are stored on the lunar surface, what organic materials are found on the moon, and the effects of “space weathering,” or how the moon’s environment shapes its geology. Other teams will use the samples to study the geologic history of the moon, the timeline of meteorite impacts and how much volcanic activity there was on the moon in the past.
“By studying these precious lunar samples for the first time, a new generation of scientists will help advance our understanding of our lunar neighbor and prepare for the next era of exploration of the moon and beyond," says Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. “This exploration will bring with it new and unique samples into the best labs right here on Earth.”
Science News’s Lisa Grossman reports that NASA has about 842 pounds of moon rocks, dust and core samples collected during the six Apollo moon landings between 1969 and 1972. Since then, 50,000 samples of moon material have been studied at 500 labs in 15 countries. Even still, over 80 percent of the moon material has not been touched, and most of it is stored in a specially built lab in Houston.
As technology has improved over the last 50 years, those samples have revolutionized our understanding of the moon. Just in the last decade, Grossman reports, researchers studying the samples have found hundreds of times more water in moon dust than previously recorded. Geologists have also studied the samples to map how the moon’s magnetic fields have changed over time, which clues them in on what was going on in the moon’s interior.
“Getting samples from another part of the moon would revolutionize our understanding of the moon and of the solar system, just like the Apollo samples did,” Ryan Zeigler, Johnson Space Center’s Apollo sample curator, tells Grossman.
Currently, the next lunar sample return is scheduled to happen relatively soon as part of the Artemis program, a mission to land the first woman and next man on the moon by 2024. Some critics, however, believe that program’s timeline is too optimistic and may be impacted by politics down on Earth. In any case, NASA still has several hundred pounds of moon samples left from Apollo, in case scientists need to focus on those for a little bit longer.