A lunar sample from the Apollo 17 mission has finally been opened at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, nearly 50 years after it was obtained. It’s one of the remaining samples from the final Apollo mission to land humans on the moon that hasn’t been opened.
“We have had an opportunity to open up this incredibly precious sample that’s been saved for 50 years under vacuum and we finally get to see what treasures are held within,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, in a statement.
It was discovered by NASA astronauts Eugene Cernan and Harrison “Jack” Schmitt in the Taurus-Littrow Valley in December 1972, when they hammered 14-inch (36-centimeter) cylindrical drive tubes into a landslide deposit. While still on the lunar surface, the two astronauts vacuum-sealed the tube.
The obtained material was put in a second protective tube in a separate cabinet at Johnson’s lunar laboratory after the flight returned to Earth, where it remained undisturbed until this week.
The sample, coded 73001, comprises lunar soil and rock pieces that can be used to reconstruct the moon’s geology across time. In 2019, on the 50th anniversary of the first lunar landing, another sample from Apollo 17 was unsealed for the first time.
As a holdover for future technology, here’s a sample
Some Apollo samples were left unopened on purpose so that future generations with more advanced technology may study them and learn more about Earth’s natural satellite.
In a video posted by NASA during a Science Live session on Thursday, Schmitt stated, “We had quite a number of very good cores that are giving us new information.” “It was anticipated early on in the Apollo programme that analytical technology would mature and become much more sophisticated with time. In fact, Apollo never ended for lunar scientists .”
Schmitt is a geologist who is the first and only civilian and scientist to set foot on the moon. The other 11 guys were all deemed to be serving members of the military.
At the University of Texas at Austin, a team employed X-ray CT equipment to scan 3D images of the sample inside the tube before it was opened.
In a statement, Apollo sample curator Ryan Zeigler said, “This will be the permanent record of what the material inside the core looks like before it got pushed out and divided into half-centimeter increments.” “The drive tube was very full, which is one of the things we learned with the CT scans, and it caused a slight complication in how we were initially planning to extrude it, but we have been able to adapt using these scans.”
The crew carefully opened the outer tube in February to capture any gas that may have been present.
“We have extracted gas out of this core, and we hope that will help scientists when they’re trying to understand the lunar gas signature by looking at the different aliquots (samples taken for chemical analysis),” Zeigler said.
Initial scans and analysis, as well as the opening of a mock core, prepared the scientists so they wouldn’t be surprised when it came time to open the sample on Monday and Tuesday.
At NASA’s Astromaterials Research and Exploration Science Division in Houston, they next opened the tube inside a sealed glove box.
Juliane Gross, deputy Apollo sample curator, said it was a time-consuming operation that was well worth it, despite her arms being restrained by the glove box’s huge gloves.
Steps in the direction of the Artemis lunar mission
Opening this sample will help NASA collect additional lunar material when the Artemis programme, named after Apollo’s twin sister, returns humans to the moon later this decade.
“Terrestrial samples and lunar samples are very different, so the Artemis team has already taken that into account as they design their tools,” Zeigler said. “They didn’t start from scratch. They started with Apollo 17 and what worked really well and are moving forward from there toward Artemis.”
Artemis crew, including the first woman and person of colour to land on the moon, will make history by landing for the first time at the lunar south pole.
Artemis explorers will meet stunning lighting at the bottom of the moon, as well as icy conditions and intriguing lunar soil, far from the familiar conditions of the lunar equator, which was explored by the Apollo astronauts.
“The Moon’s South Pole is a great place for potentially building up large deposits of what we call volatiles, (substances that evaporate at normal temperatures, like water ice and carbon dioxide)” said Lori Glaze, director of the Planetary Science Division at NASA Headquarters, in a statement.
“These volatiles can give us clues about where water came from in this part of the solar system — whether from comets, asteroids, solar wind, or otherwise.”
The additional materials gathered during the Artemis mission may aid scientists in better understanding the evolution of the moon.
“We have an opportunity to address some really important questions about the Moon by learning from what has been recorded and preserved in the regolith (rocky soil) of these Apollo samples,” NASA Astromaterials Curator Francis McCubbin said in a release.
“We curated these samples for the long term, so that scientists 50 years in the future could analyze them. Through Artemis, we hope to offer the same possibilities for a new generation of scientists.”