“We had the opportunity to open this incredibly precious specimen that had been preserved for 50 years in a vacuum, and we were finally able to see the treasures inside,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. statment.
It was collected by NASA astronauts Eugene Cernan and Harrison “Jack” Schmidt in December 1972 when they hammered 14-inch (36 cm) diameter cylindrical engine tubes into landslide deposits in the Toros Litro Valley. The two astronauts vacuumed the tubes while they were still on the moon.
Once the mission returned to Earth, the captured sample was stored in a second protective tube in a special cabinet at Johnson’s Lunar Laboratory, where it remained undisturbed until this week.
Waiting sample for future technology
Some of the Apollo samples were intentionally left unopened so future generations with better technology could study them and unlock more information about Earth’s natural satellite.
“We had a large number of very good nuclei providing us with new information,” Schmidt said in a video shared by NASA during an episode of Science Live on Thursday. “It was expected early on in the Apollo program that analytical technology would mature and become more complex over time. In fact, Apollo was never over for lunar scientists.”
Schmidt is a geologist, civilian and the only scientist to have landed on the moon. All eleven other men were considered active military members.
Before opening this sample, the team used X-ray CT technology to scan 3D images of the sample inside the tube at the University of Texas at Austin.
“This will be the permanent record of what the material inside the core looks like before being pushed out and broken down into half-centimeter increments,” Ryan Ziegler, Apollo sample curator, said in a statement. “The motor tube was very full, which is one of the things we learned with the CT scans, and it caused a slight complication in the way we initially planned to extrude it, but we were able to adapt with these scans.”
In February, the team carefully opened the outer tube to collect any gas that might be present.
“We extracted gas from this core, and we hope this helps scientists when they try to understand the moon’s gas signature by looking at different aliquots[samples taken for chemical analysis],” Ziegler said.
Initial scans and analyzes, as well as the opening of the dummy core, prepared the scientists so they wouldn’t have any surprises on Monday and Tuesday when it was time to open the sample.
Then they opened the tube inside a closed glove box at NASA’s Astronomical Materials Research and Exploration Science Division in Houston.
With the arms tied up in huge glove boxes, Julian Gross, deputy curator of the Apollo sample, said it was a tedious process, but it was totally worth it.
“We did it step by step, trying not to lose all the little bits and screws,” Gross said. “We’re the first to actually see this soil for the first time. It’s the best thing in the world – like a kid in a candy store, right?”
Steps towards the lunar mission of Artemis
Opening this sample could prepare NASA to collect new lunar material when they return humans to the Moon later this decade through the Artemis program, named after Apollo’s twin sister.
“Terrestrial and lunar samples are very different, so the Artemis team took that into account when designing their instruments,” Ziegler said. “They didn’t start from scratch. They started with Apollo 17 and what worked really well and they progress from there toward Artemis.”
Artemis astronauts, including the first woman and first person of color to land on the Moon, will land at the Moon’s south pole for the first time.
Far from the familiar conditions of the lunar equator, visited by Apollo astronauts, the Artemis explorers will encounter exciting illumination on the lunar bottom, as well as frigid conditions and intriguing lunar soil.
“The Moon’s south pole is a wonderful place to form potentially large deposits of what we call volatiles, (material that evaporates at normal temperatures, such as water ice and carbon dioxide),” said Laurie Glaese, director of the Planetary Science Division at NASA Headquarters. , in the current situation.
“These volatiles can give us clues about where the water in this part of the solar system comes from – whether from comets, asteroids, the solar wind, or otherwise.”
New samples collected during the Artemis program could help scientists better understand the evolution of the moon.
“We have an opportunity to answer some really important questions about the Moon by learning from what has been recorded and preserved in the regolith of these Apollo samples,” said Frances McCubbin, curator of NASA astronomical materials, in a statement.
“We curated these samples for the long-term, so that 50 years in the future scientists can analyze them. Through Artemis, we hope to offer the same possibilities to a new generation of scientists.”
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