Space

NASA prepares to study untouched Moon samples from the Apollo missions

NASA prepares to study untouch...
Astronaut Harrison Schmitt collects lunar samples during the Apollo 17 mission
Astronaut Harrison Schmitt collects lunar samples during the Apollo 17 mission
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Astronaut Harrison Schmitt during extravehicular activity as part of the Apollo 17 mission
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Astronaut Harrison Schmitt during extravehicular activity as part of the Apollo 17 mission
Astronaut Harrison Schmitt collects rock samples during the Apollo 17 mission
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Astronaut Harrison Schmitt collects rock samples during the Apollo 17 mission
Apollo 17 lifts off in 1972
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Apollo 17 lifts off in 1972
NASA astronaut stands in front of the American flag during the Apollo 17 mission
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NASA astronaut stands in front of the American flag during the Apollo 17 mission
Astronaut Harrison Schmitt collects lunar samples during the Apollo 17 mission
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Astronaut Harrison Schmitt collects lunar samples during the Apollo 17 mission
Astronaut Harrison Schmitt at work during the Apollo 17 mission
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Astronaut Harrison Schmitt at work during the Apollo 17 mission

Almost half a century has passed since the last of the Apollo missions touched down on the lunar surface, but the samples collected throughout the program will continue to guide our understanding of the Moon for some time yet. Some of these are yet to see the light of day, and by now pulling them out and studying them with today's scientific instruments, NASA hopes to delve into the makeup of the Moon like never before.

Among the rocky samples to be studied is material collected and vacuum sealed on the Moon by Apollo 17 astronauts in 1972, which has remained unexposed to Earth's atmosphere since. Taken from a landslide deposit in the Moon's Taurus-Littrow Valley, this particular sample consists of around 800 g (1.8 lb) of not just surface material, but also rocky layers down below, extracted by way of a special tube that was driven into the lunar surface by astronauts Harrison Schmitt and Gene Cernan.

Under The Apollo Next Generation Sample Analysis (ANGSA) program, NASA has selected nine research teams from different institutions, including scientists from its own Goddard Space Flight Center, to place various Apollo-era samples under the microscope, six of which will study the aforementioned Apollo 17 material. Heading up one of those teams is Dr Charles Shearer, a research scientist at the University of New Mexico's (UNM) Institute of Meteoritics, who tells us now is the perfect time to break the seal.

Astronaut Harrison Schmitt at work during the Apollo 17 mission
Astronaut Harrison Schmitt at work during the Apollo 17 mission

"The goal behind the preservation of these special samples was always to provide pristine lunar samples for future generations of planetary scientists and engineers," Shearer explains to New Atlas. "This is the right time. New technologies not available 50 years ago are available now. From recent orbital missions, we have new views of the Moon that can be tested with these 'new' samples. In the 2020s, NASA and its international partners will return to the Moon. How we explore the Moon and carry out human activities on the Moon may be partial dependent on the observations made on these samples."

So what might they tell us now that they couldn't if we impatiently opened them in the 1970s? The researchers will make use of a range of new tools to study the water, gas and volatile element record within the samples. Those measurements will be compared to first-hand observations made on the surface during their collection, as well as new data collected by modern-day lunar orbiters.

Astronaut Harrison Schmitt collects rock samples during the Apollo 17 mission
Astronaut Harrison Schmitt collects rock samples during the Apollo 17 mission

"There are numerous technologies that have evolved over the last 50 years that will provide us a new way of looking at these samples," Shearer tells us. "Generally, they can be viewed as great improvements in scale and precision of measurements and the development of new isotopic systems. For example, a variety of electron and ion microscopy tools such as transmission electron microscopy, focused ion beam scanning electron microscopy and secondary ion mass spectrometry allow observations and measurements down to the Angstrom scale. These tools allow us to examine and analyze thin coating of volatiles on mineral surfaces."

These may prove particularly useful in trying to understand large shifts in the Moon's surface, with the scientists to conduct the first detailed examination of a lunar landslide deposit in hopes of understanding the timing and what may have set it off.

"The increased precision of measurements will allow us to establish a more precise age of major events on the lunar surface," Shearer continues. "In the case of the Apollo 17 core, these precise ages will allow us to address the timing, and trigger of the landslide deposit sampled by this core."

While NASA will be keeping some of its Apollo samples tucked away, others including frozen material from Apollo 17 and material stored in helium from Apollo 15 will be analyzed by other teams selected through the ANSGA program. And amid all the cutting-edge scientific instruments, there is still a little room for intergenerational sentimentality.

"The first generation of Apollo scientists and engineers is in their 80s," says Shearer. "Our UNM-based team is multi-generational, including the scientists that collected and studied these returned samples in the early 1970s and early career professionals and students. This is a great transfer of knowledge and experience from the first generation of lunar explorers to future generations."

Source: University of New Mexico

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