Home South pole ice Scientists Begin Studying 50-Year-Old Frozen Apollo 17 Samples

Scientists Begin Studying 50-Year-Old Frozen Apollo 17 Samples

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A frozen Apollo 17 sample being processed in a nitrogen purged glove box at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. The sample is one of many studied under the ANGSA program. Credit: NASA/Robert Markowitz

Scientists at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, recently received lunar surface samples that have been stored in a freezer at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston since Apollo 17 astronauts brought them back to Earth in December 1972.

This research is part of the Apollo Next Generation Sample Analysis Program, or ANGSA, an effort to study samples returned from the Apollo program ahead of upcoming Artemis missions to the moon’s South Pole.

However, the process of passing samples from Johnson to researchers at Goddard, as well as researchers at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley, the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C., and the University of arizona, Tucson, was not easy. . It’s a process that began more than four years ago when NASA’s Julie Mitchell and her Artemis conservation team at Johnson began designing and modernizing a facility to process frozen samples from Apollo 17. It’s This was a new approach and the scientists were excited to employ a technique that could be applied to future lunar missions.

“We started this in early 2018 and had to overcome a lot of technical challenges to get here,” Mitchell said. “It was seen as a practice to prepare a facility for future cold sample processing.”

“By doing this work, we are not only facilitating the exploration of Artemis, but we are facilitating future sample return and human exploration in the rest of the solar system,” Mitchell added. “I feel very privileged to be contributing 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.”

Once the facility was ready, Ryan Zeigler, curator of Apollo samples in Johnson’s Astromaterials Research and Exploration Science (ARES) division, and his team had to adapt to the unique conditions Mitchell’s team designed to maintain samples frozen during processing, which included reduced visibility due to freezing and difficulty handling samples while working with thick gloves in a nitrogen purged glove box, all in a walk-in freezer kept at minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 20 C). Being able to keep samples frozen will be important for Artemis, as astronauts could return ice samples from the moon’s south pole.






Scientists at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, recently received lunar surface samples that have been stored in a freezer at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston since Apollo 17 astronauts brought them back to Earth in December 1972. Credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

“Everything we do involves a lot of logistics and a lot of infrastructure, but the addition of cold makes it much more difficult,” Zeigler said. “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. This work gives us some lessons learned and a good step forward for Artemis.”

After the frozen samples were processed and subdivided at Johnson by Lunar Sample Processor Jeremy Kent, the samples were then express-shipped in a cooler with dry ice, immediately opened at Goddard and stored in a secure freezer. . For the scientists currently working with the treasures, there’s something special about receiving samples that haven’t been studied for nearly five decades.

Jamie Elsila, a research scientist at Goddard’s Astrobiology Analysis Laboratory, focuses on studying small volatile organic compounds for her research and sample analysis. Previous research has shown that some lunar samples contain amino acids, which are essential for life on Earth. His team wants to understand their origin and distribution in the solar system.

“We think 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,” Elsila said. “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.”

Natalie Curran, principal investigator for the Mid Atlantic Noble Gas Research Lab at Goddard, focuses on understanding the history the samples may have had during their life on the moon. The Moon’s surface is a harsh environment, and unlike Earth, it has no atmosphere to protect it from exposure to space.

“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 the effects the exposure has had on the organic matter.”

Scientists Begin Studying 50-Year-Old Frozen Apollo 17 Samples

Three ARES scientists process frozen Apollo 17 samples inside a walk-in freezer kept at minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 20 C). Under the lab coat, they put on parkas, gloves and hats to keep warm. Credit: NASA/Robert Markowitz

Elsila and Curran are in possession of frozen and unfrozen lunar samples. When these samples were brought to Earth, part was stored at room temperature and another part was frozen, allowing comparison between the two groups. Scientists will analyze the two sets of samples to determine if there are any differences in organic content. Understanding all of the variations caused by different preservation methods could inform future decisions about how to store samples returned by Artemis astronauts, part of what Johnson’s ARES team will do.

For Elsila, “it’s very cool to think about all the work that went into collecting the samples on the moon, and then all the foresight and care that went into preserving them so that we could analyze them at this time,” she noted.

As for Curran, “when you think about how these samples came from another world, how far they traveled, and what solar system history they preserved inside, it makes me wonder. always amazes,” she added.


NASA Goddard teams to study unopened Apollo samples


More information:
Learn more about how NASA studies samples from Apollo and other celestial bodies at:

https://ares.jsc.nasa.gov

Provided by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

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