Eugene A. Cernan – NASA/AFP via Getty Images
Fifty years ago, astronauts on one of NASA’s Apollo missions hammered a pair of 14-inch-long tubes into the surface of the moon. After the tubes were filled with rocks and soil, the astronauts – Eugene Cernan and Harrison “Jack” Schmitt – vacuum sealed one of the tubes, while the other was placed in a normal unsealed container. Both were brought back to Earth.
Now scientists at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston are preparing to carefully open that first tube, which has remained hermetically sealed all these years since then. 1972 Apollo 17 mission — the last time humans set foot on the moon.
Why so long? To take advantage of the technology of the future — our present.
“The agency knew that science and technology would evolve and allow scientists to study the material in new ways to address new questions in the future,” says NASA’s Lori GlazeDirector of the Division of Planetary Sciences.
The unsealed tube of this mission was opened in 2019. Lunar soil layers had been preserved, and the sample offered insight into topics such as landslides in airless places.
Robert Markowitz/NASA-Johnson Space Center
Since the sample being opened has been sealed, it may contain something in addition to rocks and soil: gas. The tube could contain substances called volatiles, which evaporate at normal temperatures, such as water ice and carbon dioxide. The materials at the bottom of the tube were extremely cold when collected.
The amount of these gases in the sample should be very small, so scientists use a special device called a collector, designed by a team at Washington University in St. Louis, to extract and collect the gas.
Another tool has been developed at the European Space Agency (ESA) to puncture the sample and capture gases as they escape. The scientists there called this tool the “Apollo can opener.”
The painstaking process of opening and capturing has begun, and so far so good: the seal on the inner sample tube appears to be intact. Now the piercing process is underway, with this special “can opener” ready to trap any gases that may come out.
If there are gases in the sample, scientists will be able to use modern mass spectrometry technology to identify them. (Mass spectrometry is a tool for analyzing and measuring molecules.) The gas could also be split into tiny samples that other researchers could study.
“Each gaseous component analyzed can help tell a different part of the story of the origin and evolution of volatile compounds on the Moon and in the early Solar System,” explained Francesca McDonaldwho leads the project at ESA.
Ryan Zeigler, the curator of the Apollo sample at NASA, said that 10 years after it was proposed, there is excitement about the project. And with these two new tools, he says, there is now “the unique equipment to make it possible”.
The analysis of these samples is linked to NASA’s Artemis missions, which will send humans to the moon for the first time in more than 50 years. Part of the plan for Artemis is to bring a woman and a person of color to the surface of the moon for the very first time.