372 kg of Moon Rock and "Soil"
Written by Alissa Madera, Graduate Student in the Rutgers Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences.
In 1972, Apollo 17 astronauts collected and sealed “soil” samples from the lunar surface that remained unopened until March 2022. Rutgers’ own Dr. Juliane Gross, currently Deputy Apollo Sample Curator for NASA Johnson’s Space Center, experienced firsthand the opening of these samples after 50 years of being sealed. Why wait so long? Samples are now being opened in preparation for the return to the Moon and collection of new lunar samples in the late 2020s!
When NASA sent astronauts to the Moon, they collected and stored samples of rock and “soil” to be returned to Earth for scientific studies. These critical samples helped scientists understand the formation of the Earth-Moon system, as well as identify the Moon’s composition, age, and how the Moon evolved geologically through time. Knowing scientific instruments would make significant progress with time, NASA saved these some of these samples to be opened and studied later in more precise detail with more advanced equipment.
On March 21st, Dr Juliane Gross of Rutgers University, also currently Deputy Apollo Sample Curator for NASA Johnson’s Space Center (JSC) Astromaterials Research and Exploration Science (ARES) Division in Houston, Texas, and her team opened a sealed core sample from the Apollo 17 mission. The opening of the core is a part of NASA’s Apollo Next Generation Sample Analysis (ANGSA) Program driven to understand how well these samples were collected and sealed 50 years ago as NASA prepares to return astronauts to the lunar surface with the Artemis program in the late 2020s.
When collected, the core sample was sealed under vacuum to prevent loss of any precious lunar gasses. A core piercer and gas extraction tool from the European Space Agency (ESA) was developed to extract these gasses prior to opening the core sample so that scientists can better understand the compositions of volatiles that may be trapped in lunar soil. These volatiles can be found as ice at the cold, lunar polar regions and serve as an important resource for astronauts.
Once the gasses were extracted, Dr. Gross and her team began the process of core extrusion. Careful measurements were taken using X-ray CT scan that provided 3D images of the core sample to be used as a “roadmap” for the curators during the extrusion of the core. This process was successfully completed by March 22, 2022 with Dr. Gross and her team being the first people since 1972 to see this sample of lunar soil. The curators will now take the next few months to carefully separate the core into samples that will be sent globally to researchers for scientific studies.
This novel perspective of the Moon provided by the newly opened Apollo 17 core sample will help scientists answer many questions about our closest planetary neighbor. It is an exciting time in planetary science, and we congratulate Dr. Juliane Gross and her team as they make history 50 years later!
Plain, Charlie (2022, March 6). NASA Studies ‘New’ 50-Year-Old Lunar Sample to Prep for Return to the Moon. Retrieved March 27 from https://www.nasa.gov/feature/nasa-studies-new-50-year-old-lunar-sample-to-prep-for-return-to-moon
Williams, Catherine Ragin (2022, March 25). Fifty Years Later, Curators Unveil One of the Last Sealed Apollo Samples. Retrieved March 27 from https://www.nasa.gov/feature/fifty-years-later-curators-unveil-one-of-last-sealed-apollo-samples
NASA Science Live: We Just Opened a 50-year-old Moon Sample. Retrieved March 27 from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mc89Wm75PLw