June 26, 2022
Why did NASA wait 50 years to open this sample of the moon?

Why did NASA wait 50 years to open this sample of the moon?

A metal tube containing samples of lunar soil has been closed since 1972, when the Apollo 17 mission collected it. But now, NASA He will eventually unlock it.

The 35-cm-tall, 4-cm-diameter, air-tight container contains rocks and dust from landslide deposits in the region of the moon known as the Taurus Lettro Valley. Scientists hope that lunar gases can be stored indoors, too.

When astronauts Eugene Cernan and Harrison “Jack” Schmidt took the sample in question in December 1972, there weren’t many resources for analysis.

But the team believes that in the future, science and technology will continue to advance even if there are no more manned missions to the moon – Apollo 17 was the last time humans set foot on Earth’s natural satellite. Therefore, some of the 2,196 samples collected on the six flights of the program, between 1969 and 1972, went untouched to be studied in the following decades.

Now, with modern instruments, NASA has already begun a long and meticulous process of opening the tube, which should take several weeks, in partnership with the European Space Agency (ESA) (European Space Agency). A forked-type device, called an “Apollo opener,” was specifically developed to penetrate it, without allowing gas to escape or contaminating the material.

The special can opener will remove potential rocks and gases from the tube

Photo: ANGSA/ESA Science Team

Only two tubes of the Apollo program were closed by astronauts on the moon itself, at the time of assembly – the other two tubes were closed in the usual way, without being completely sealed. This is the first of these two “special offers” that will be unlocked. In addition, only three more samples remained untouched (one arrived sealed and two “ordinary”).

The jewels are preserved in a reinforced structure, with a second layer of vacuum and controlled atmosphere, at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

valuable gases

To collect this sample, the astronauts essentially hammered the tube into the ground – and reported that it had gotten very cold. For NASA, this is an indication that volatiles are also trapped, such as ice and carbon dioxide, that would evaporate at normal temperatures.

Jane Cernan - NASA - NASA

Apollo 17 astronaut Gene Cernan prepares to collect samples from the moon

Photo: NASA

Extracting the gases is a challenge for scientists, as the amount must be minimal – so be careful when opening. If they succeed, they will have a unique opportunity to study it, using highly sensitive spectrophotometers capable of measuring and analyzing individual molecules. This may help reveal the geological history of the Moon and the evolution of the solar system.

Within a few months, the rocks in the sample should be disassembled, so that different teams could analyze it. The interesting question is where it was taken from: the landslide zone. But if there is no rain on the moon, how do landslides occur? Another answer the researchers hope to get.

This study should also help prepare astronauts for future Artemis missions, which will return the man (and the first woman) to the moon. They will collect new samples of soil and gas, in large quantities, to compare them with old samples and advance understanding of lunar transitions.

After several delays, the first landing on our satellite is not expected until 2026, according to the space agency. In the long term, the plan is to create a permanent lunar base.