NASA Unseals Lunar Samples from Apollo Prepping for New Mission to Moon

The Cosmic Companion
Nov 9 · 5 min read

Before NASA sends human beings back to the Moon, researchers examined pristine lunar samples returned by the Apollo astronauts. Here’s what they are hoping to find— and what remains to be discovered.

Researchers at NASA have opened a sample of material from the Moon untouched by humans for more than four decades. When this material was brought to Earth by the astronauts of the Apollo 17 mission, I am Woman by Helen Reddy headed the Top 40 music chart, The Price is Right premiered on CBS, and the North Vietnamese government walked out of the Paris Peace Talks.

Today, a new examination of this material, collected by Apollo 17 astronauts Gene Cernan and Harrison “Jack” Schmitt, could answer mysteries about the Moon, as NASA prepares for the return of humans to the lunar surface as part of the Artemis program.

Three NASA researchers, all women, examine a sample of lunar material brought to Earth by the Apollo astronauts.
Three NASA researchers, all women, examine a sample of lunar material brought to Earth by the Apollo astronauts.
Andrea Mosie, Charis Krysher and Juliane Gross open lunar sample 73002 at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. The Moon rocks inside this tube have remained untouched since they were collected on the lunar surface and brought to Earth by Apollo astronauts more than four decades ago. Credits: NASA/James Blair

This is the first time in more than four decades that a pristine sample of lunar material from Apollo has been unsealed. The sample was opened on November 5 at Lunar Curation Laboratory at the agency’s Johnson Space Center in Houston as part of NASA’s Apollo Next-Generation Sample Analysis (ANGSA) initiative. The vision behind ANGSA is to study Apollo samples using technology, techniques, and knowledge not known about in the days of shirtwaist dresses and wrapped jackets.

“We are able to make measurements today that were just not possible during the years of the Apollo program. The analysis of these samples will maximize the science return from Apollo, as well as enable a new generation of scientists and curators to refine their techniques and help prepare future explorers for lunar missions anticipated in the 2020s and beyond,” Dr. Sarah Noble, ANGSA program scientist at NASA, stated.


Opening a Time Capsule

Much of the highly-desired sample of rocks and regolith from the Moon were distributed to select research and educational institutions. However, some samples collected during the Apollo 15, 16, and 17 missions were set aside, awaiting future advancements in tools and techniques that could be brought to bear, unwrapping the secrets held within the stones.

A metal tube inside a metal and glass case.
A metal tube inside a metal and glass case.
The Apollo 17 sample (right) still encased in its protective tube. Image credit: UNM Newsroom

During the Apollo 17 expedition, Schmitt collected a pair of cylindrical samples 4 cm (1.4 inches) in diameter, including material from beneath the lunar surface. These were placed in special containers (one vacuum sealed) for the trip to Earth. These samples and others collected during Apollo 15, 16, and 17 were set aside (some samples in their original packaging) for study by the scientists of the future.

Today, researchers can utilize a wide variety of tools and resources to examine these lunar samples that were not available in the days of the first eight-bit home computers.

Samples 73002 and 73001, both collected on Apollo 17, will be examined using techniques including non-destructive 3D imaging, mass spectrometry (which records the presence of ions in a sample) and ultra-high resolution microtomy (examination of ultra-thin slices of samples under study).

Images of a pair of tubes containing rocks and soil from the lunar surface.
Images of a pair of tubes containing rocks and soil from the lunar surface.
Using X-ray Computer Tomography (XCT), researchers created a high-resolution 3D image of the lunar regolith within the two sample tubes. This was done to better plan the removal, dissection, and dispersal of the material. Image credit: NASA

It was sample 73002 — kept unstudied, but not under a vacuum seal — that was the first of the two-foot-long-tubes to be opened. Following X-Ray scanning, specially-designed tools were used, inside a pure nitrogen environment, to coax the precious sample from inside its casing.

Sample 73001, carefully kept inside a vacuum chamber placed inside a second vacuum chamber, will be unsealed early in 2020, once procedures are refined to collect any gases which may be released.

The material examined in this study was collected from debris created in a landslide which took place near Lara Crater. Researchers will study these samples, hoping to learn more about landslides on the Moon, the history of lunar impacts, and to help unravel the geology and chemistry of our planetary companion.

Opening lunar samples that have been sealed for more than forty years could reveal secrets about our planetary companion. Video credit: Dave Edey and Romy Hanna. UTCT, Jackson School of Geosciences, UT Austin.

To be Fair, there are no Travel Brochures Yet for the Moon….

“The Moon had been observing the earth close-up longer than anyone. It must have witnessed all of the phenomena occurring — and all of the acts carried out — on this earth. But the moon remained silent; it told no stories.” — Haruki Murakami, 1Q84

Examination of the chemical and geological structures of the moon rocks could aid future missions to the Moon (and perhaps onto Mars) by teaching us how to extract water from the lunar landscape. In addition to its obvious uses for drinking and washing, water can also easily be converted into breathable oxygen and fuel to power future space missions. Study of these newly-opened samples will also show researchers what worked — as well as what didn’t — in the tools used by Apollo astronauts, as they work to design the tools to be used by the next humans to walk on the Moon.

Nations and private organizations around the globe, from China to SpaceX, are currently racing to place robots and humans on the Moon in the coming decade (especially at the south pole of the Moon, where water is most plentiful). Currently, NASA plans to land people (including the first woman) on the Moon by 2024, and to have a continued presence on the lunar surface by 2028.

Utilizing the Neutral Buoyancy Lab at Johnson Space Center in Houston, NASA prepares procedures and techniques for carrying out the next human missions to the Moon and beyond. Image credit: NASA’s Johnson Space Center

Harrison “Jack” Schmitt, a geologist (and the only scientist to have, so far, walked on the Moon) helped collect the just-opened sample 73002 as he walked across the lunar surface in 1972. This veteran astronaut is currently active in the science team now examining the lunar samples.

“This provides an essential link between the first generation lunar explorers from Apollo and future generations who will explore the Moon and beyond starting with Artemis,” Charles Shearer, science co-lead for ANGSA, remarked.

As Artemis aims toward the Moon, her twin brother, Apollo, aims to guide her way.


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The Cosmic Companion

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Writing about space since I was 10, still not Carl Sagan. Mailing List/Podcast: https://thecosmiccompanion.substack.com

The Cosmic Companion

Exploring the wonders of the Cosmos, one mystery at a time

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