The Apollo missions to the Moon brought a total of 2,196 rock samples to Earth. But NASA has only just begun to open one of the last, collected 50 years ago.
All the while, some tubes were kept sealed so they could be studied years later, using the latest technical advances.
NASA knew that “science and technology would evolve and allow scientists to study material in new ways to address new questions in the future,” said Lori Glaze, director of the planetary science division at NASA headquarters. NASA, in a statement.
Named 73001, the sample in question was collected by astronauts Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt in December 1972, during the Apollo 17 mission — the last of the program.
The tube, 35cm long and 4cm wide (13.8 inches by 1.6 inches), had been hammered into the ground of the Moon’s Taurus-Littrow Valley to collect the rocks.
Of the only two samples to have been vacuum sealed on the Moon, this is the first to be opened.
It could thus contain gases or volatile substances (water, carbon dioxide, etc.).
And the objective is to extract these gases, which are probably only present in very small quantities, in order to be able to analyze them using spectrometry techniques that have become extremely precise in recent years.
At the beginning of February, the outer protective tube was first removed.
It was not revealed that it contained moon gas, indicating that the sample it contained remained sealed.
Then, on February 23, scientists began a week-long process to puncture the main tube and harvest the gas inside.
In the spring, the rock will then be carefully extracted and fragmented so that it can be studied by different scientific teams.
The extraction site of this sample is particularly interesting because it is the site of a landslide.
“Now we have no more rain on the Moon,” said Juliane Gross, Apollo’s assistant curator. “And so we don’t quite understand how landslides happen on the Moon.”
Gross said the researchers hope to study the sample to understand what is causing the landslides.
After 73001, there will only be three lunar samples left sealed. When will they in turn be open?
“I doubt we’ll wait another 50 years,” senior curator Ryan Zeigler said.
“Especially once they get the Artemis samples back, it might be interesting to do a real-time, direct comparison between anything coming back from Artemis and with one of those remaining unopened sealed cores,” said he declared.
Artemis is NASA’s next lunar mission; the agency wants to return humans to the Moon in 2025.
Large quantities of gas should then be collected, and the experiment currently being conducted makes it possible to better prepare for this.