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NASA: Lunar samples from Apollo missions, never exposed to Earth’s atmosphere, to be analyzed

Harrison Schmitt collects lunar rake samples during the first Apollo 17 extravehicular activity.

HOUSTON — After sitting untouched in storage for nearly 50 years, lunar samples collected during the Apollo 15, 16 and 17 missions will be studied for the first time, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine announced Monday, March 11.

The announcement came during Bridenstine’s discussion of the agency’s Moon to Mars initiative and the 2020 budget. NASA selected nine teams to study the moon samples and awarded a total of $8 million for their research.

“By studying these precious lunar samples for the first time, a new generation of scientists will help advance our understanding of our lunar neighbor and prepare for the next era of exploration of the Moon and beyond,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, in a statement. “This exploration will bring with it new and unique samples into the best labs right here on Earth.”

The three samples from the final three Apollo missions have never been exposed to our atmosphere on Earth. Six of the nine teams will study the Apollo 17 sample, delivered to Earth in a vacuum-sealed drive tube that astronauts Harrison Schmitt and Gene Cernan hammered into the lunar surface to collect a material core in 1972.

It’s about 1.8 pounds of rock layers as they were found on the moon. The sample has been in storage at NASA’s Johnson Space Center since December 1972.

The other teams will study samples kept frozen or stored in helium from the final moon missions. The Apollo missions traveled to the moon’s equatorial region, so all of the samples are from a similar area, but previous studies using data from orbit have revealed that the moon has complex geology, including rocks and minerals not determined from the Apollo samples.

The pristine samples were kept in storage for a reason.

“Returned samples are an investment in the future. These samples were deliberately saved so we can take advantage of today’s more advanced and sophisticated technology to answer questions we didn’t know we needed to ask,” Lori Glaze, acting director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division, said in a statement.

The nine teams will include researchers from NASA Ames Research Center, the Bay Area Environmental Research Institute, NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center, the University of Arizona, the University of California, Berkeley, the US Naval Research Laboratory, the University of New Mexico, Mount Holyoke College and the Planetary Science Institute.

Before the samples are opened, the researchers will collaborate with Johnson Space Center curation staff to determine the best way to avoid contamination.

The teams will study a variety of aspects about the samples, including completing an experiment begun 50 years ago by studying how water is stored in the radiated environment of the moon’s surface. Another team will study the geologic history of the site investigated during Apollo 11, a cold trap where water may have been able to freeze. That marks the first time such a sample will be studied in a lab.

Other aspects include the process of “space weathering” of objects on the moon’s surface, how small organic molecules are preserved on the moon, how noble gases in the sample can determine age, hydrogen-bearing minerals in the soil, the impact of meteorites on the moon’s geology, how airless objects are affected by the space environment and the tiny glass beads that formed during an ancient eruption on the moon.

“The beads are formed by rapid cooling of droplets from explosive lunar fire fountains, like those seen in Hawaii,” said M. Darby Dyar, a senior scientist at the Planetary Science Institute selected by NASA for the study, in a statement. “We will map changes from core to rim that reveal hydrogen and oxygen pressures in the lunar interior and before, during, and after eruption.”

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