NASA opens tube of moon dust from the Apollo missions
NASA scientists recently opened a sample. It was a tube of rock and soil. It was collected on the moon during Apollo 17. The tube remained unopened for nearly 47 years. 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. They are testing next-generation sampling tools. This is in preparation for the next time humans fly to the moon.
The sample tube holds about 15 ounces. Inside is lunar regolith, which is loose rocky material. If is from the moon's surface. Gene Cernan and Jack Schmitt were Apollo 17 astronauts. They collected the material during the mission. It was in December of 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 in a feature called the Lara Crater. There is also a second sample. It is called 73001. It's scheduled to be opened 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 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 since it was collected. But it was not in vacuum conditions. Researchers at the University of Texas, Austin, created a high-resolution 3D image. It is of the dust and crushed rock that is within the tube. This was done before it was removed.
The sample is being removed from the tube using special tools. They are inside an enclosure filled with ultra-pure nitrogen. The sample will then be divided into quarter-inch segments. It will be distributed to various research teams.
The second sample is 73001. It was collected in a special vacuum-sealed tube. The researchers hope they will be able to capture and analyze gases. These might be released from that sample when it is opened. That will happen early next year.
NASA announced that nine labs would receive bits of the samples last March. They will look at various properties. These properties include how volatile molecules are stored 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 use the samples to study the geologic history of the moon. They will examine the moon's timeline. They will look at 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. He is an 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."
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.
50,000 samples of moon material 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 in Houston.
Technology has improved over the last 50 years. Those samples have revolutionized our understanding of 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 how the moon's magnetic fields have 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 as part of the Artemis program. It is a mission to land the first woman and 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 left from Apollo. These will be helpful. Scientists may need to focus on those for a little bit longer.