NASA has just recently opened and examined one of the few remaining untouched samples taken from the moon on the Apollo mission. The sample was opened on November 5, 2019, at the Lunar Curation Laboratory of Johnson Space Centre in Houston. The sample, held in a 4-centimeter tube and weighing 430 grams, was recovered by Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt on December 12, 1972, while on the second of the moonwalks and contains moon rocks and dust from the lunar surface. The sample was collected on the rim of Lara Crater and has remained unopened for the last 47 years since it was brought to earth though it wasn’t held in a vacuum chamber.
Sarah Noble, a scientist at Apollo Next-Generation Sample Analysis (ANGSA) in NASA, said that the analysis of the samples would shed more light on their research in preparation for future missions to the moon in the 2020s. She added that the results would help scientists refine their techniques using measurements that were not available years ago during the program. Some of the methods used in the research include non-destructive 3D imaging, ultra-high-resolution microtomy, and mass spectrometry, which are expected to accelerate the study of the samples to be done by nine teams selected from agencies, universities as well as laboratories around the country.
The entire program enabled the collection of 382 kilograms of samples from the moon, collected by 12 astronauts over six missions. The collection is stored in the Johnson Space Centre, with a small portion held off-site from the area. The sample, numbered ID 73002, was the upper half of a 0.6-meter ‘ drive tube,’ with the rest of the example scheduled for study in January, making two other samples from the Apollo 15 and 16 the only untouched samples. A drive tube is used to gather samples while preserving the vertical structure of the regolith, having information such as volatile subsurface material and even data on lunar landslides.
To study the sample, the tube went through X-ray computed tomography to produce a 3D image that will help in the analysis by informing division and distribution to agencies that will perform the research. The scan, done at the University of Texas Austin, will enable the study of minute soil grains while ensuring the components of the sample to remain undamaged. Using a glovebox filled with dry nitrogen, the sample will be taken out from the tube and broken into 0.6-centimeter portions to allow a comprehensive study about vertical variation.