Fifty years ago, Apollo 17 commander Eugene Cernan and astronaut geologist Harrison Schmitt hammered 36-centimeter tubes into the lunar soil to collect samples of the interior of the Earth’s satellite. The vacuum tubes were shipped to the US and stored under vacuum inside a protective outer container at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.
The intact rock and soil in these two test tubes were stored with other samples taken, awaiting analysis by future scientists using more advanced tools. The program is managed by NASA’s Astromaterials Research and Development Division (ANGSA).
“The agency knew that science and technology would evolve and allow scientists to study material in new ways to address these issues in the future. The ANGSA initiative was designed to study these carefully stored and sealed samples,” said Laurie Gleizes, NASA Director of Planetary Sciences.
Now, half a century later, NASA is in the process of opening one of the Apollo 17 tubes — the ANGSA 73001 sample cache — to study the material inside with state-of-the-art equipment. But first, the researchers want to “catch” and identify volatiles that may be present in the once ultracold soil – materials that would immediately evaporate at room temperature.
To do this, a one-of-a-kind device was developed to allow penetration into the container, capturing and analyzing any possible traces of gases. So far, the analysis has not shown anything unusual, but over the coming months, the team is going to determine what types of gases may be present there, before extracting the stone and soil for detailed study.
Apollo 17 samples were collected at the moon’s equatorial latitude, and now NASA is preparing to send several missions to the moon’s south polar region, where ice may be present in permanently shadowed craters.
“Understanding the geological history and evolution of lunar samples at the Apollo landing sites will help us prepare for the types of samples that may be discovered during the Artemis space program,” said NASA Scientist Thomas Zurbuchen.
“Thanks to Artemis, we will get soil samples from the South Pole of the Moon. This is an exciting opportunity to learn to understand the tools needed to collect and transport these samples, analyze them, and store them on Earth for future generations of scientists,” the researcher added.