NASA scientists have begun studying 50-year-old samples of the moon’s surface that were collected during the agency’s last crewed moon landing mission, Apollo 17.
In March this year, NASA scientists opened a lunar sample collected during Apollo 17 and stored in 1972. The sample had sat in a freezer for decades at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, but was recently made its way to the agency’s Goddard spaceflight. Installation in Maryland, where researchers began to examine it. NASA aims for this work to support future lunar sample studies taking place with its new crewed lunar landing program, known as Artemis.
“By doing this work, we’re not just facilitating the exploration of Artemis, but we’re facilitating future sample return and human exploration in the rest of the solar system,” said planetary scientist and engineer Julie Mitchell. NASA, which leads the Artemis conservation team at Johnson, said in a statement.
“I feel very privileged to contribute in this small way by developing the capabilities for us to collect these materials, bring them home safely, and store them for the long term,” Mitchell added.
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Getting Apollo 17 moon samples from the NASA site in Texas to Maryland took years.
“We started this in early 2018, and we had to overcome a lot of technical challenges to get here,” Mitchell said. She added that moving these valuable and fragile samples serves as a rehearsal on how to handle and move future lunar samples. “It was seen as a practice to prepare a facility for future cold sample processing,” Mitchell said.
Before leaving for Goddard, the samples had to be processed while remaining frozen. They were handled with thick gloves in a transparent box in a walk-in freezer kept at minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 20 degrees Celsius). Managing these harsh and frigid conditions is important in preparing the team to collect future samples from Artemis.
“Being able to preserve frozen samples will be important for Artemis, as astronauts can potentially return ice samples from the moon’s south pole,” the NASA statement read.
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“Everything we do involves a lot of logistics and a lot of infrastructure, but the addition of cold makes it a lot more difficult,” said Ryan Zeigler, Apollo sample curator at Astromaterials Research and Exploration Science Division. NASA to Johnson, in the same statement.
“This is an important learning lesson for Artemis, because being able to process samples in the cold will be even more important for the Artemis mission than for Apollo,” Johnson added. “This work gives us some lessons learned and a good step forward for Artemis.”
Once processed, the samples were separated and shipped to Goddard “in a cooler with dry ice”, before being stored in a new secure freezer, according to the release.
Mysteries of the Moon
It may seem that we have learned all there is to learn from samples collected over 50 years ago. But NASA scientists have explained why they were so excited to explore these Apollo 17 rocks.
For example, previous research has found amino acids in lunar samples. As amino acids are essential for life as we know it on Earth, exploring this further could help scientists better understand how life originated not just on Earth, but possibly elsewhere in the solar system.
“We believe that some of the amino acids in lunar soils may have formed from precursor molecules, which are smaller, more volatile compounds such as formaldehyde or hydrogen cyanide,” said Jamie Elsila, a researcher at the Goddard’s Astrobiology Analysis Laboratory. volatile organic compounds, said in the release.
“Our research goal is to identify and quantify these small volatile organic compounds, as well as all amino acids, and use the data to understand the moon’s prebiotic organic chemistry,” Elsila said.
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Samples like these can also help scientists piece together the moon’s history, Natalie Curran, principal investigator of the Mid Atlantic Noble Gas Research Lab at Goddard, said in the same statement. Curran’s goal is to explore lunar samples and determine what the pieces of the moon may have endured over their lifetime.
“Our work allows us to use noble gases, such as argon, helium, neon and xenon, to measure how long a sample is exposed to cosmic rays, and this can help us understand the story of this sample,” Curran said. “Cosmic rays can damage organic matter that may be in a sample, so understanding the duration helps determine what effects the exposure has had on the organic matter.”
Curran then reflected on what it’s like to be able to study pieces of the moon here on Earth.
“When you think about how these samples came from another world, how far they traveled, and what solar system history they preserved inside, it always amazes me” , she said.