NASA scientists begin studying 50-year-old frozen samples of Apollo 17’s moon

A frozen moon rock from Apollo 17 being processed at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. (Image credit: NASA/Robert Markowitz)

NASA scientists have begun studying 50-year-old samples of the Moon’s surface that were collected during the agency’s latest manned Apollo 17 moon landing mission.

In March of this year, NASA scientists dissected a lunar sample collected during Apollo 17 and stored in 1972. The sample has been stored in a freezer at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston for decades, but was recently sent on the agency’s Goddard Space Flight. A facility in Maryland where researchers began to examine it. NASA is targeting this work to support future lunar sample research to be conducted as part of its new crewed lunar landing program known as Artemis.

“By doing this work, we are not only facilitating the exploration of Artemis, but also facilitating future sample return and human exploration of the rest of the solar system,” said Julie Mitchell, NASA planetary scientist and engineer who leads the Artemis curatorial team at Johnson.

“I am honored to make my small contribution by developing the ability for us to collect these materials, bring them safely home and store them for a long time,” Mitchell added.

Related: NASA hacks into 50-year-old moon rock sample

complex logistics

It took years to get the Apollo 17 moon samples from NASA’s Texas site to Maryland.

“We started this in early 2018 and we had to overcome a lot of technical challenges to get to this point,” Mitchell said. She added that moving these precious and fragile samples served as a rehearsal for how to handle and move future lunar samples. “This was seen as a practice run to prepare equipment for future processing of cold samples,” Mitchell said.

Before leaving for Goddard, the samples had to be processed while remaining frozen. They were handled with thick gloves in a transparent box in a freezer kept at minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 20 degrees Celsius). Managing these difficult ice conditions is important to prepare the team to collect future Artemis specimens.

“The ability to store samples frozen will be important to Artemis, as astronauts could potentially return ice samples from the moon’s south pole,” NASA said in a statement.

Related: How NASA’s Artemis moon landing works with astronauts

Three scientists process frozen Apollo 17 samples in a freezer. (Image credit: NASA/Robert Markowitz)

“Everything we do involves a lot of logistics and a lot of infrastructure, but adding cold makes it a lot harder,” Ryan Zeigler, Apollo Sample Curator at NASA’s Astromaterials Research and Research Office at Johnson, said in the same statement.

“This is an important lesson for Artemis, as the ability to process samples in the cold will be even more important for the Artemis mission than for Apollo,” Johnson added. “This work gives us some lessons learned and a good outlook for Artemis.”

The statement said that after processing, the samples were separated and shipped to Goddard “in a dry ice refrigerator” before being placed in a new safety freezer.

lunar mysteries

It may seem that we have learned everything there is to know from samples collected over 50 years ago. But NASA scientists have shared why they’re so excited about exploring these Apollo 17 rocks.

For example, previous studies have found amino acids in lunar samples. Since amino acids are essential for life as we know it on Earth, further study of this issue could help scientists better understand how life arose not only on Earth, but possibly in other parts of the solar system.

“We think that some of the amino acids in the lunar soil could have come from precursor molecules, which are smaller, more volatile compounds like formaldehyde or hydrogen cyanide,” said Jamie Elsila, a researcher at the Goddard Astrobiological Analytical Laboratory. volatile organic compounds,” the statement said.

“The aim of our study is to identify and quantify these small organic volatile compounds, as well as any amino acids, and use the data to understand the Moon’s prebiotic organic chemistry,” said Elsila.

On the subject: 7 theories of the origin of life

Samples like these could also help scientists piece together the history of the moon, Natalie Curran, principal investigator at the Mid-Atlantic Noble Gas Research Laboratory in Goddard, said in the same statement. Curran is focused on studying lunar samples and figuring out what may have happened to parts of the moon during their lifetime.

“Our work allows us to use noble gases such as argon, helium, neon and xenon to measure the time a sample has been exposed to cosmic rays, and this can help us understand the history of this sample,” Curran said. “Cosmic rays can damage the organic material that may be in the sample, so understanding the duration helps determine the impact on the organics.”

Curran further reflected on what it would be like to study parts of the Moon here on Earth.

“When you think about how these specimens came from another world, how far they traveled, and the history of the solar system that they have stored within themselves, it always amazes me,” she said.

Email Chelsea of ​​the Year at cgohd@ or follow her on Twitter @chelsea_gohd. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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