Fifty Years Later, Researchers Unbox Samples From Apollo 17

The lunar surface material was kept in a freezer at NASA’s Johnson Space Center since December 1972

An image of a lunar sample in a plastic box with gloved hands analyzing it.
Each sample in the redesigned facility is handled with gloves in a sealed, nitrogen-free box and stored inside a walk-in freezer kept at minus 20 degrees Celsius. NASA/Robert Markowitz

NASA scientists are now studying lunar surface samples collected 50 years ago during the Apollo 17 mission, the agency's last crewed mission to the moon.

The frozen samples sat untouched in a freezer at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston for decades. Now, they have arrived at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Facility in Maryland for examination, reports Chelsea Gohd for Space.com

Upon the samples' arrival on Earth in 1972, some were stored at room temperature while others were frozen so that researchers could compare their differences in degradation to observe which curation methods were better for preserving lunar soil.

As NASA's Artemis program prepares to return to the moon, studying the Apollo 17 samples will improve future recovery efforts from the moon and other places in the solar system, a NASA statement explains. 

"This was seen as a practice run for preparing a facility for future cold sample processing. By doing this work, we're not just facilitating Artemis exploration, but we're facilitating future sample return and human exploration into the rest of the solar system," says Julie Mitchell, a planetary scientist and NASA engineer within the Astromaterials Research and Exploration Science Division (ARES) at the Johnson Space Center, in a statement.

Each sample in the redesigned facility is handled with gloves in a sealed, nitrogen-free box and stored inside a walk-in freezer kept at minus 20 degrees Celsius, per Matilda Handsley-Davis for Cosmos.

"Everything we do involves a lot of logistics and a lot of infrastructure, but adding the cold makes it a lot harder," says Ryan Zeigler, Apollo sample curator within ARES at Johnson, in a statement. "It's an important lesson for Artemis, as being able to process samples in the cold will be even more important for the Artemis mission than it is for Apollo."

To get the lunar samples to Maryland from Texas, researchers processed the samples and shipped them surrounded by dry ice. After the lunar material arrived in Maryland, they were placed in a freezer.

Previous research found amino acids in the lunar samples. Astrochemist Jamie Elsila of Goddard's Astrobiology Analytical Laboratory will analyze the Apollo 17 samples to see where the amino acids came from, Cosmos reports. As essential building blocks of life on Earth, understanding how the amino acids formed in the soil may help researchers understand their origin and distribution in the solar system, a statement explains. Analyzing soil samples like these can also help the team piece together the moon's history.

"I feel very privileged to contribute in this small way by developing the capabilities for us to collect these materials, bring them home safely, and curate them for the long term," says Mitchell in a statement.