Decades ago, NASA astronauts Gene Cernan and Jack Schmitt were part of the Apollo 17 mission to the moon. As part of their duties, they gathered samples from the moon by driving a 4cm wide tube into the Moon’s surface. The samples have remained in the container for over 40 years. As part of the NASA Apollo Next-Generation Sample Analysis (ANGSA) initiative, the sample is being opened and studied using tools that weren’t available when they were first collected.
The team can study samples today using tools that weren’t available when those samples were originally returned to Earth. Studying the samples with modern tools is part of how NASA is maximizing the science return from the Apollo missions. The ANGSA program also allows a new generation of scientists and curators to refine techniques and help prepare future explorers for missions in the 2020s and beyond.
NASA decided in the Apollo era to leave some of the samples from the moon untouched to preserve them for future generations. Other samples returned in the mission have been well studied, and some are part of ongoing research. There are unopened samples that were collected on Apollo 15, 16, and 17 missions. The two samples that the ANGSA team is studying are 73002 and 73001; both collected on Apollo 17.
The samples are studied using non-destructive 3D imaging, mass spectrometry, and ultra-high resolution microtomy. Both samples are part of a two-foot-long “drive tube” of regolith that was collected from a landslide deposit near Lara Crater at the Apollo 17 site. The samples preserve the vertical layering of the lunar soil.
Sample 73002 has remained unopened but wasn’t sealed under vacuum was extruded from its container on November 5. Sample 73001 will be opened in early 2020 and was sealed on the Moon in a special core sample vacuum container and then placed in another vacuum container and sealed on Earth. That sample will be opened once NASA fine-tunes a plan for capturing the gases in the container that were sealed inside along with the sample on the moon.