NASA opens tube of moon dust from the Apollo missions The recently opened Apollo moon sample. (NASA/James Blair/National Park Service)
NASA opens tube of moon dust from the Apollo missions
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NASA scientists recently opened a sample. It was a tube. Inside was rock. There was also soil. It was collected on the moon. It was collected during Apollo 17. The tube has not been opened. It has been sealed for nearly 47 years. 

It is the first time NASA scientists have broken in to a fresh moon sample. This is the first time in over four decades. Researchers are using the lunar dirt. They are testing next-generation sampling tools. This is in preparation. They are getting ready for the next time humans fly to the moon.

The sample tube holds about 15 ounces. Inside is lunar regolith. This is loose rocky material. If is from the moon's surface. Gene Cernan was an astronaut. Jack Schmitt was also an astronaut. They were on Apollo 17. They collected the material. This was during the Apollo 17 mission. It was in December. It was in 1972. It was NASA's last crewed mission to the moon. 

The sample is called 73002. It was taken from a two-foot-long tube. The astronauts drove it into a landslide deposit. It was in a feature called the Lara Crater. There is also a second sample. It is called 73001. It's scheduled to be opened. This is set to happen in January

Both will be analyzed. This is part of the Apollo Next-Generation Sample Analysis initiative. It is known as the ANGSA.

"We are able to make measurements today that were just not possible during the years of the Apollo program," said Sarah Noble. This was in a statement. She is an ANGSA program scientist. 

"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. That's since it was collected. But it was not in vacuum conditions. Researchers created a high-resolution 3D image. The researchers work at the University of Texas, Austin. The image is of the dust. It is of the crushed rock. These are both inside the tube. The image was done before it was removed. 

The sample is being removed from the tube. Researchers are using special tools. They are inside an enclosure. It is filled with ultra-pure nitrogen. The sample will be divided. It will be split into quarter-inch segments. It will be distributed. It will go to various research teams.

The second sample is 73001. It was collected in a special tube. It was vacuum-sealed. The researchers hope they will be able to capture gases. They will analyze the gases. The gases might be released from that sample. That would happen when it is opened. It will be opened early next year.

NASA announced that nine labs would receive bits of the samples. They announced this last March. They will look at various properties. These properties include how volatile molecules are stored. This is on the lunar surface. One example of these volatile molecules is water.

They will examine what organic materials are found on the moon. They will look at the effects of "space weathering." That is how the moon's environment shapes its geology. 

Other teams will also use the samples. They will study the geologic history of the moon. They will examine the moon's timeline. They will look at meteorite impacts. They will also look at how much volcanic activity there was on the moon.

"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. He is an associate administrator. He works for NASA's Science Mission Directorate. 

"This exploration will bring with it new and unique samples into the best labs right here on Earth."

Lisa Grossman works for Science News. She reports that NASA has about 842 pounds of moon rocks and dust. This also includes core samples. These were collected during the six Apollo moon landings. These happened between 1969 and 1972. 

There are 50,000 samples of moon material. These samples have been studied since those missions. They have been studied at 500 labs. These labs are in 15 countries. Over 80 percent of the moon material has not been touched. Most of it is stored in a specially built lab. The lab is in Houston.

Technology has improved over the last 50 years. Those samples have changed what we know about the moon. Grossman reported that researchers studying the samples have found hundreds of times more water in moon dust than previously recorded. That's just in the last decade. Geologists have also studied the samples. They have mapped the moon's magnetic fields. They have mapped how they changed over time. This 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 told Grossman. He works at Johnson Space Center. He is the Apollo sample curator.

The next lunar sample return is scheduled to happen soon. It is part of the Artemis program. It is a mission. It will land the first woman on the moon. And it will land the next man on the moon. This is set to happen by 2024. But some critics believe that program's timeline is too optimistic. They think it may be impacted by politics down on Earth. 

NASA still has several hundred pounds of moon samples. These are left from Apollo. These will be helpful. Scientists may need to focus on those for a little bit longer.

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CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
What do you think may be the most helpful thing scientists could learn by studying the moon dust?
Write your answers in the comments section below


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