NASA astronaut Harrison Schmitt collects lunar samples during the Apollo 17 mission in 1972.
In December 1972, NASA astronauts Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt drilled into the moon’s surface to collect lunar soil samples for transport back to Earth. This week, NASA finally opened one of the vacuum-sealed samples for the first time.
“We’ve had the opportunity to open this incredibly precious sample that has been kept under vacuum for 50 years,” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said in a statement. “We can finally see what treasures are kept in it.”
The tube is a time capsule not only from the deep geological history of the moon, but also from an earlier time in the space age when our tools were more primitive.
“The agency knew that science and technology would evolve and allow scientists to study the material in new ways to answer new questions in the future,” said Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division.
Zurbuchen says the timing is also coincidental as it helps NASA prepare for its impending return to the moon later this decade as part of the Artemis program.
“Understanding the geological history and evolution of the lunar samples at the Apollo landing sites will help us prepare for the types of samples we may encounter during Artemis,” he said.
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Getting to the preserved sample wasn’t as easy as taking a cap off. Before the contents of the sealed tube could be extruded, it was first scanned using X-ray CT technology to create a 3D image of what the team could expect inside. Then all the gas was collected in an outer protective tube for study.
The inner container was then pierced to extract any gases that were present.
“We have extracted gas from this core and we hope this will help scientists as they try to understand the lunar gas signature by looking at the different aliquots [samples taken for chemical analysis]’ said Ryan Zeigler, curator of Apollo samples.
Finally, the powdery gray contents were pushed out of the cylinder and separated in half-centimeter increments.
The Apollo 17 core sample 73001 processing team works at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.
Even before the trial started on Monday, the team had performed dry runs using a mock-up in the lab. The whole process had to be done by putting hands in huge gloves in a vacuum glove box and manipulating specialized tools to get to the sample.
The work was done as part of the Apollo Next Generation Sample Analysis Program, or Angsa, at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.
Now, with the cat out of the bag, or rather the regolith out of the tube, the sample must be analyzed to see what exactly has been waiting half a century to be discovered.
NASA curator Francis McCubbin says today’s astronauts will also pay the gift to scientists working in the second half of this century.
“We’ve put together these long-term samples so scientists can analyze them 50 years into the future,” McCubbin says. “Through Artemis, we hope to bring the same opportunities to a new generation of scientists.”