NASA opens a sample taken from the Moon 50 years ago

NASA has begun the arduous task of opening up one of the last existing samples from the Apollo 17 mission, collected almost 50 years ago by astronauts. For half a century the agency has kept certain tubes sealed under vacuum so that they can be studied years later using the latest advances in technology with many new and exciting discoveries awaiting. Now that time has come.

A sample of moon rock collected during the Apollo 17 mission is opened by NASA 50 years later. Image credits: NASA / JPL.

A satellite bearing the scars of the birth of the solar system

A desolate landscape, where dust and hue shift like an alien – our only natural satellite, the Moon, has fascinated mankind for eons. Marked by tranquil seas of hardened lava and impact craters, some of which formed more than 3.8 billion years ago in the early history of the solar system, the moon is as fascinating as ever.

Without an atmosphere to erode and alter its landscape, the lunar surface remains frozen in time, leaving the record of a newly formed universe accessible. When astronauts first dated the lunar surface and, covered it in a thick layer of “moon dust” known as regolith, the results were stunning. The lunar samples were radio-dated, showing ages ranging from 3.3 to 4.4 billion years – far older than most rocks on our planet, which have been continually hidden or weathered by our atmosphere, l tectonic activity and weather conditions. In fact, the rocks on the moon are so ancient that they offer insight into the birth of the satellite, our own planet, and even the solar system.

The Apollo missions to the Moon brought 2,196 rock samples back to Earth. Nasa set aside two vacuum-sealed rock samples collected in 1972 by astronauts Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt in the Taurus-Littrow Valley at Mare Serenitatis – the mission’s landing site, saving them for better weather.

Holding these samples and awaiting their analysis also coincides with NASA’s Artemis program which hopes to send astronauts to the Moon in 2025. Officials therefore determined that this would be an excellent time to examine a sample from the mission. Apollo 17 in order to recover the discoveries of the original researchers. may have missed all those years ago when humans were last on the Moon, using our best technology and what we learned from previous scans.

Dr. Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s planetary science division, said in a report that they predict that “science and technology will evolve and allow scientists to study material in new ways to address new questions in the future”. So what can we learn from the samples?

What we’ve learned so far about the lunar surface

Landing site and surrounding area, as imaged from the Apollo 17 command module, 1972. Image credits: NASA.

Only a tiny layer of gas exists on the lunar surface with no air to breathe. Like tiny cannonballs flying unhindered over the lunar surface, they never collide because there are only 100 gas molecules per cubic centimeter. For comparison, Earth’s atmosphere at sea level contains about 100 trillion gas molecules per cubic centimeter, according to

Several elements have already been detected on the lunar surface by various means. Detectors left behind by Apollo astronauts identified argon-40, helium-4, oxygen, methane, nitrogen, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide. In addition, terrestrial spectrometers have established the presence of sodium and potassium on the surface. At the same time, the Lunar Prospector Orbiter found radioactive radon and polonium isotopes, and as recently as 2012, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter detected helium.

Many of these gases are thought to originate from within the Moon, released by bombardment from celestial bodies breaking through its crust, releasing hot lava below, flowing like lakes across its surface during the Moon’s infancy. More recently, studies have speculated that these extraterrestrial missiles cause ice deposition at the lunar poles and mix with solar winds and moonquakes to leave behind non-native gases and compounds.

That’s where the samples housed at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston come in. They’re dubbed the Apollo Next Generation Sample Analysis Program (ANGSA) 73001, and researchers have just begun unsealing them, hoping to understand the lunar surface with up-to-date scientific instruments. Once there, they plan to mine the alien ice contained within its untouched mountains.

“Understanding the geological history and evolution of samples from the Moon at Apollo landing sites will help us prepare for the types of samples that could be encountered during Artemis,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, Associate Administrator of NASA’s science mission directorate in Washington.

“Artemis aims to bring cold, sealed samples back near the lunar south pole. This is an exciting learning opportunity to understand the tools needed to collect and transport these samples, to analyze them, and to store them on Earth for future generations of scientists,” Zurbuchen added in the official statement. Nasa Press release.

How and where on the Moon were the samples taken?

Cernan and Schmitt collected the 73,001 samples using a hollow “drive tube”, which they hammered into the lunar surface using a geology pick. The device, a pair of connected 14-inch (35cm) tubes, was used to collect rocks and soil from a landslide which in itself is a mystery as there are no adverse weather conditions on the Moon or tectonic plates moving below the surface to cause one.

Hoping to solve this mystery with future knowledge, the lower half of the training tube was vacuum sealed on the Moon before being brought back to Earth. NASA said only one other sample was collected under these conditions, making the collection process almost unique. The other tube (the top half of the trainer tube) was capped to keep the contents intact and returned to Earth in typical fashion where NASA teams analyzed it.

Now attention is focused on one of the two vacuum-sealed lower tubes, stored in a separate external vacuum tube and kept in a controlled atmosphere environment at Johnson for half a century. When collected, the lunar temperature under the ground was freezing, which means that volatile substances (substances that evaporate at average temperatures, such as water, ice or carbon dioxide) could be present. . It goes without saying that scientists are particularly interested in them because they will improve techniques for identifying volatiles missed in past research that the Artemis mission could then apply.

They already know there won’t be much gas available. Still, NASA believes modern mass spectrometry technology might be able to analyze what’s there, allowing the identification of unknown molecules if they’re present with the gas split between different expert spectra facilities.

So where is the current “unsealing”?

The surface of the moon, photographed by members of Apollo 17.

In early February, the ANGSA team removed the outer protective tube, establishing that no lunar gas was present: indicating that the sample in the inner tube was stable and had not leaked. Then, on February 23, scientists began a week-long process to puncture the main tube, harvesting the gas inside, without damaging the samples.

Rock samples will then be carefully extracted and circulated between different scientific teams for analysis in the spring.

NASA’s Ryan Zeigler, curator of Apollo samples, who is overseeing the project, said: “Once they get the samples back from Artemis, it might be interesting to do a direct real-time comparison between everything which returns from Artemis and one of them remaining unopened core, sealed cores.

As a result, the experiment currently being conducted helps the global space community better prepare for the return of the Artemis mission team with large amounts of lunar gas and rock.

The next big challenge for NASA

Another major challenge for space missions universally is moon dust that has stripped Apollo spacesuits. Dust is a significant problem because intense ultraviolet light knocks electrons out of lunar soil particles, giving those particles an electrical charge that can keep them suspended in the air for a long time. Ambient electric fields then lift the charged particles above the surface, forming a veil of dust several kilometers high.

“It’s something that we don’t see anywhere on Earth, and it’s something that has a direct bearing on space exploration, because if you understand how dust behaves and is charged, you can prepare for lunar exploration,” said Dr. Denis Richard of NASA Ames, says “Imagine that if the dust is charged very, very strongly, you can have problems with the space equipment, it can wear out your equipment because it is abrasive,” he points out.

When the Apollo astronauts returned to Earth, still coated with it, they described the moon dust as grainy, abrasive and sticky, wreaking havoc on equipment and computers.

Therefore, much more will have to be known about the moondust before humans return to the lunar surface; another reason to keep 73001 in storage for so long is that it may contain something missing from previous unsealed samples.

And once the world’s space agencies have deciphered the composition and mechanics of the jagged regolith, work can begin on next-generation spacesuits and equipment for lunar colonization – heralding space travel for the masses and the world. interstellar exploration. As NASA’s Ryan Zeigler says, “A lot of people are excited.” They are right.

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