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NASA cracks open a sample of moon soil that’s been shut away for four decades

Apollo sample processors Andrea Mosie, Charis Krysher and Juliane Gross open lunar sample 73002 at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. (NASA Photo / James Blair)
Apollo sample processors Andrea Mosie, Charis Krysher and Juliane Gross open lunar sample 73002 at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. (NASA Photo / James Blair)

For the first time in more than 40 years, NASA has opened up a pristine sample of moon dirt and rocks that was collected during the Apollo missions.

Scientists hope that a close analysis of the material from a 2-foot-long, nearly 2-inch-wide core sample will help astronauts get ready for a new series of Artemis moon missions in the 2020s.

When Apollo’s moonwalkers collected samples of lunar soil and rock, also known as regolith, some of those samples were tucked away at NASA’s Johnson Space Center with the expectation that analytical tools would improve over the course of the decades that followed. The idea was to keep the samples fresh until the proper time.

NASA says that proper time is now.

The first of the stored lunar samples, known as 73002, was pushed out of its container at Johnson Space Center’s Lunar Curation Laboratory on Tuesday.

Lunar sample collection
Apollo 17 commander Gene Cernan prepares to collect samples 73001 and 73002 during the 1972 lunar mission. (NASA Photo)

It’s a sampling of regolith that was collected with a coring tube from a landslide deposit near Lara Crater at the Apollo 17 landing site in 1972. The sample preserves the sequence of layers of lunar soil in a long column.

A lab team will spend the next several months processing the sample and distributing parts of it to scientists participating in the Apollo Next-Generation Sample Analysis Program, or ANGSA.

Team members got their first high-resolution look at the sample even before it was taken out of the tube, thanks to an X-ray scan that was conducted at the University of Texas at Austin. The 3-D imagery will guide sample processors as they divide the column of dirt into quarter-inch segments for detailed study.

This video features X-ray imagery acquired with the help of Dave Edey and Romy Hanna at the University of Texas:

Another part of the core sample, known as 73001, has been vacuum-packed and double-sealed for more than four decades. That sample is due to be opened in early 2020, once scientists have fine-tuned plans for capturing the gases that are trapped in the container along with the soil.

The techniques that’ll be used for studying the samples include advanced non-destructive 3-D imaging, mass spectrometry and ultra-high-resolution microtomy.

“We are able to make measurements today that were just not possible during the years of the Apollo program,” Sarah Noble, ANGSA program scientist at NASA Headquarters, said today in a news release.

“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,” she said.

X-ray scan comparison
These photos of sample 73002 illustrate how the state of the art for X-ray scans since the Apollo era. The top scan was produced this year using advanced X-ray computed microtomography. The bottom scan was produced by NASA in 1974 using radiograph technology. (UT-Austin / NASA Photos)

Close analysis of the samples could give scientists a better idea about the composition of lunar regolith, as well as the evolution of the lunar crust and the accumulation of water ice. NASA is counting on being able to use that ice and its chemical constituents, hydrogen and oxygen, as water for drinking, air for breathing, and propellants for refueling rockets.

In May, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos said his Blue Origin space venture is also counting on water ice deposits as a long-term resource for the company’s hydrogen-fueled lunar landers. “Ultimately we’re going to be able to get hydrogen from that water on the moon, and be able to refuel these vehicles on the surface of the moon,” he said.

Handling pristine samples will help scientists get ready for the work they’ll be doing on Earth once astronauts start bringing back samples again, as early as 2024.

“I grew up on the stories of Apollo. They inspired me to pursue a career in space, and now I have an opportunity to contribute to the studies that are enabling the next missions to the moon,” said Charis Krysher, a member of the processing team that opened up lunar sample 73002. “To be the one to open a sample that hasn’t been opened since it was collected on the moon is such an honor and heavy responsibility, We’re touching history.”

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