The Apollo missions to the Moon brought a total of 2,196 rock samples to Earth. But the US Space Agency has only just begun to open one of the last, collected 50 years ago. Since all this time, certain tubes had in fact been kept sealed so that they could be studied years later, in the light of the latest technical advances. NASA “knew that science and technology would evolve, allowing scientists to study materials in new ways to answer questions of the future,” explained in a press release Lori Glaze director of NASA’s planetary science division.
Named 73001, the sample in question was collected by astronauts Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt in December 1972, during the Apollo 17 mission, the last of the program. The tube, 35 cm long and 4 cm wide, had been driven into the ground of the Taurus-Littrow valley. Of the only two samples to have been vacuum sealed on the Moon, this is the first to be opened. It could thus contain gases or volatile substances (water, carbon dioxide, etc.).
50 years ago, @NASA_Astronauts collected these samples. We decided to wait until technology improved before studying them, and the time is now!
—NASA (@NASA) March 9, 2022
The aim is to extract these gases, which are probably only present in very small quantities, in order to be able to analyze them using spectrometry techniques that have become extremely precise in recent years.
At the beginning of February, the outer protective tube was first removed. It was not itself revealed to contain any lunar gas, indicating that the sample it contained did indeed remain sealed. Then on February 23 began a process of several weeks aimed at piercing the main tube and harvesting the gas contained therein. In the spring, the rock will then be carefully extracted and broken up so that it can be studied by different scientific teams. The extraction site of this sample is particularly interesting because it is the site of a landslide.
However, “there is no rain on the Moon and we do not really understand how landslides occur there”, explained during a session of questions on Twitter Juliane Gross, assistant curator for Apollo. “By looking at the deep parts of the carrot, we may be able to understand what causes them.”
To read : Exceptional photos of the Apollo missions sold at auction
After 73001, there will be only three lunar samples still sealed. When will they in turn be open? “I doubt we’ll wait another 50 years,” said senior curator Ryan Zeigler. But it would be interesting, he said, to be able to compare them directly with the samples that will be brought back by astronauts from NASA’s next lunar program, Artemis. The agency wants to send humans back to the Moon in 2025. Large quantities of gas should then be collected, and the experiment currently being conducted thus also serves to better prepare for it.
Any reproduction prohibited