NASA Apollo moon sample, prepare for the return of new material.

NASA has unsealed one of its last-remaining untouched samples of Apollo moon rock to prepare for the return of new material by future lunar missions.

Scientists at Johnson Space Center’s Lunar Curation Laboratory in Houston opened the Apollo 17-recovered sample on Tuesday (Nov. 5). The 1.5-inch-wide (4-centimeter) tube holding the small stash of moon rocks and dust was sealed by astronauts Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt during the second of their three moonwalks on Dec. 12, 1972.

The 15 ounces (430 grams) of moon material, collected as part of a core sample taken near the rim of Lara Crater, had remained unopened but not under vacuum since being brought to Earth 47 years ago.

“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,” said Sarah Noble, the program scientist for NASA’s Apollo Next-Generation Sample Analysis (ANGSA) initiative at the agency’s headquarters in Washington, DC.

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“We are able to make measurements today that were just not possible during the years of the Apollo program,” said Noble in a statement.

Exposing the moon

The Apollo program brought a total of 842 pounds (382 kilograms) of moon rock and regolith (or soil) back to Earth. Most of those samples, which were gathered by the 12 astronauts on six moon landing missions, have been the subjects of past and present studies. The majority of the samples are held today at Johnson Space Center, with a smaller collection stored off-site for safe keeping.

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The sample opened Tuesday, assigned the ID number 73002, was the upper segment of a 2-foot-long (0.6-meter) “drive tube.” The bottom segment, sample 73001, is slated to be opened in January. Together they are the first untouched Apollo moon rock samples to be opened since the 1970s.

The drive tube was used to collect core samples that preserved the vertical layering within the soil, including information about landslides on the moon, and a record of the volatiles trapped within the lunar regolith, perhaps even those escaping from along the Lee-Lincoln Scarp, a fault at the Apollo 17 landing site.

“Opening these samples now will enable new scientific discoveries about the moon and will allow a new generation of scientists to refine their techniques to better study future samples,” said Francis McCubbin, NASA’s astromaterials curator at Johnson.

Advances in research techniques, including non-destructive 3D imaging, mass spectrometry and ultra-high resolution microtomy, will allow for a coordinated study of samples 73001 and 73002 at an unprecedented scale. In March, NASA chose nine science teams at agency centers, federal laboratories and universities to examine the pristine samples using these new technologies and processes.

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Two other drive tube samples, one each from Apollo 15 and Apollo 16, are now the only lunar material caches to be kept untouched from 50 years ago.

Scanned then unsealed

Before opening sample 73002, the still-sealed tube underwent X-ray computer tomography (XCT) at the University of Texas Austin to produce a high-resolution, 3D image of the regolith within. The imaging helped scientists understand the sample’s structure before unsealing the container and will aid in the dissection and distribution of the sample to the research teams now that it is open.

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