NASA opening a 50-year-old vacuum-sealed moon sample

Dr. Juliane Gross, Astromaterials Research and Exploration Science Division (ARES) deputy Apollo curator (left), and Dr. Francesca McDonald of the European Space Agency (right) take readings from a new device designed to penetrate a vacuum-sealed Apollo 17 lunar sample container to collect and analyse trace gases that may be present 50 years after the material was collected. Image: NASA/James Blair

Fifty years ago, Apollo 17 commander Eugene Cernan and geologist-astronaut Harrison Schmitt hammered 36-centimetre (14-inch-long) tubes into the lunar soil to collect subsurface samples. The vacuum-sealed tubes were brought back to Earth and stored inside a protective outer container, also at vacuum, at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

The pristine rock and soil in two such tubes were stored with other selected samples to await analysis by future scientists using more advanced instruments. The program is managed by NASA’s Astromaterials Research and Exploration Division, or ANGSA.

“The agency knew science and technology would evolve and allow scientists to study the material in new ways to address new questions in the future,” said Lori Glaze, NASA director of planetary science. “The ANGSA initiative was designed to examine these specially stored and sealed samples.”

Now, a half-century later, NASA is in the process of opening one of those Apollo 17 tubes – sample cache ANGSA 73001 – to study the material inside with state-of-the-art equipment. But first, researchers want to capture any volatiles that might be present in the once ultra-cold soil, material that would immediately evaporate at room temperature.

To do so, a one-of-a-kind device was developed to penetrate the outer container, capturing and analysing whatever trace gases might be present. Analysis showed nothing unusual, indicating the interior sample container remained tightly sealed. Over the next few months, the team will penetrate the interior sample container and determine what sorts of gases, if any, might be present before removing the rock and soil for detailed study.

While the Apollo 17 samples were collected from a near-equatorial latitude, NASA is preparing to send multiple missions, including astronauts, to the south polar region where ice may be present in permanently shadowed craters.

“Understanding the geologic history and evolution of the Moon samples at the Apollo landing sites will help us prepare for the types of samples that may be encountered during Artemis,” said NASA science chief Thomas Zurbuchen.

“Artemis aims to bring back cold and sealed samples from near the lunar South Pole. This is an exciting learning opportunity to understand the tools needed for collecting and transporting these samples, for analysing them, and for storing them on Earth for future generations of scientists.”