NASA has opened up a 50-year-old moon rock sample from Apollo 17 for the preparation of Artemis

Nearly 50 years after Apollo 17 astronauts collected rocks from the lunar surface, NASA is finally collecting their samples as it prepares for new missions to the moon.

NASA set aside the moon rock samples from Apollo 17 to preserve valuable samples collected in 1972 by astronauts Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt (also a geologist) collected from the Taurus-Littrow Valley within Mare Serenitatis.

The agency knew that scientific advances in the coming decades would mean there would be techniques available to study rocks that were unavailable to scientists in the 1970s. While NASA’s Artemis program hopes to send astronauts on the moon in 2025 (the date could be pushed back to at least 2026), officials have determined that now would be a good time to examine a sample from Apollo 17, the last human mission to the moon to date. .

“The agency knew science and technology would evolve and allow scientists to study the material in new ways to answer new questions in the future,” said Lori Glaze, director of the planetary science division of the agency. NASA, in an agency statement. (opens in a new tab) March 4.

Related: NASA’s Artemis 1 lunar mission explained in photos

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Scientists watch with excitement as gas is extracted into a collector after the inner tube of a moon rock sample from Apollo 17 was punctured for the first time since it was collected in 1972. They are: Front of left, Drs.  Ryan Zeigler, Rita Parai, Francesca McDonald, Chip Shearer and left-back from left, Drs.  Zach Sharp of the University of New Mexico and Francis McCubbin, Curator of Astromaterials for the Astromaterials Research and Exploration Division (ARES).

Scientists watch with excitement as gas is extracted into a collector after the inner tube of a moon rock sample from Apollo 17 was punctured for the first time since it was collected in 1972. They are: Front of left, Drs. Ryan Zeigler, Rita Parai, Francesca McDonald, Chip Shearer and left-back from left, Drs. Zach Sharp of the University of New Mexico and Francis McCubbin, Curator of Astromaterials for the Astromaterials Research and Exploration Division (ARES). (Image credit: NASA/James Blair)
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From left, Dr. Juliane Gross, Apollo Assistant Curator of the Astromaterials Research and Exploration Division (ARES), alongside Drs.  Alex Meshik and Olga Pravdivtseva of Washington University in St. Louis begin a gas extraction process by using the collector to tap into a 1972 moon sample collected by Apollo 17 astronauts.

From left, Dr. Juliane Gross, Apollo Assistant Curator of the Astromaterials Research and Exploration Division (ARES), alongside Drs. Alex Meshik and Olga Pravdivtseva of Washington University in St. Louis begin a gas extraction process by using the collector to tap into a 1972 moon sample collected by Apollo 17 astronauts. (Image credit: NASA/James Blair)

Scientists unsealed the sample, dubbed the Apollo Next Generation Sample Analysis Program (ANGSA) 73001, at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. The team seeks to understand the lunar surface with modern scientific instruments to prepare for Artemis missions planned near the moon’s south pole.

Cernan and Schmitt collected the sample as part of a “training tube”. They hammered a pair of connected 14-inch (35 cm) tubes, one above the other, into the surface to pick up rocks and soil from a landslide.

One of the tubes (the lower half) was sealed on the moon before being brought back to Earth; there is only one other sample ever collected under these conditions, NASA said, making the collection process almost unique. The other tube (the top half) was returned in a normal, unsealed character.

This sealed tube, which is in the process of being opened, was stored in an “external vacuum tube” and then kept in a controlled atmosphere environment at Johnson for half a century. (As for the other half of the segment, which opened in 2019 (opens in a new tab)showing “rockets” or grains and smaller objects of interest to lunar geologists.)

Left to right, Apollo’s Assistant Curator of Astromaterials Research and Exploration (ARES) Dr Juliane Gross and ESA’s Dr Francesca McDonald take precise measurements from ‘A piercing device before using a newly developed tool while opening samples from an Apollo Box of 17 moonstones.. (Image credit: NASA/James Blair)

The sealed part of the core was on the lower segment, which means the temperature was quite cold when collected. In the 1970s, scientists did not know that volatile substances (or substances, like water, that evaporate at room temperature) were present on the surface at such low temperatures. Now that scientists know what to look for, they are going to hunt these birds.

There won’t be much gas available, but modern mass spectrometry technology may be able to analyze what’s there. The technique allows scientists to examine a mass of “unknown molecules” (or components of matter). The gas can also be distributed for different researchers to examine at their respective facilities.

NASA’s Ryan Zeigler, curator of Apollo samples, oversees the project, which was proposed a decade ago by Chip Shearer of the University of Mexico. “A lot of people are excited,” Zeigler said of the work, which began Feb. 11 and will likely take months to extract the sample and its gas.

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