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NASA will be opening a pristine 50-year-old lunar sample

NASA will be opening a very special time capsule soon: One of the last unopened lunar samples from the Apollo missions to the moon 50 years ago. The sample will be studied to help understand some of the conditions that astronauts can expect when they return to the moon under the Artemis program.

The sample will be opened by the Astromaterials Research and Exploration Science Division (ARES) team at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. it is from the Apollo 17 mission, the final mission of the era which launched in 1972. It contains rocks and soil from the lunar surface, collected from a landslide deposit in the Taurus–Littrow Valley. The sample was vacuum sealed while on the moon and has remained unopened since then.

Researchers from the Astromaterials Research and Exploration Science Division (ARES) group careful handle a sample tube containing a lunar sample at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.
Researchers from the Astromaterials Research and Exploration Science Division (ARES) group carefully handle a sample tube containing a lunar sample at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. NASA

Along with the vacuum-sealed portion of the tube, there was also an unsealed segment that was opened in 2019. The exciting thing about the vacuum-sealed part is that when the sample was collected, the temperatures were very low. That means there might be violates like water ice or carbon dioxide trapped inside, which would be a valuable source of information about how to collect similar samples in future missions.

“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 Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, in a statement. “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 analyzing them, and for storing them on Earth for future generations of scientists.”

There was a lot of foresight required to keep such a sample pristine and unopened throughout such a long period. “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, director of the Planetary Science Division at NASA Headquarters. She referred to the Apollo Next Generation Sample Analysis Program (ANGSA), the team leading the sample analysis, as created specially for this purpose: “The ANGSA initiative was designed to examine these specially stored and sealed samples.”

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