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Lunar specimens have been in deep freeze for 50 years. NASA finally has the right technology to study them properly


Curators working with lunar breeds are very careful to keep these materials from contaminating when they work with them in cold boxes using gloves and protective equipment. This frozen sample of Apollo 17 is being studied in a glove box with purified nitrogen at NASA’s Johnson Space Flight Center. Provided by NASA / Robert Markovic.

Have you ever wondered what happened to all those collections of stones and dust that Apollo astronauts brought from the moon? Some of these lunar samples were investigated immediately. Others have crept into several museums and research centers and into the tables of world leaders. Still others landed at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. Some were stored at room temperature and others in deep freeze. The idea was to keep on them any traces of gases, water or perhaps organic materials. Some of these lunar specimens are now at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, where they are being examined for the first time in 50 years using new techniques not available in the Apollo years.

What can lunar samples tell us?

Why study old lunar rocks and dust? And how do you do that? For Natalie Carran, Chief Investigator Mid-Atlantic Noble Gas Research Laboratory in Goddard, the story the specimens experienced on the moon is very appealing. The lunar surface is a harsh place. There is no atmosphere and no running water. Impact craters, radiation from the sun and cosmic rays are the biggest factors changing the surface of the moon.

“Our work allows us to use noble gases, such as argon, helium, neon and xenon, to measure the duration of exposure to a sample of cosmic rays, and this can help us understand the history of this sample,” Curran said. “Cosmic rays can damage organic materials that may be in the sample, so understanding the duration helps determine the effects of exposure to organic matter.”

Colleague Jamie Elsila, a research scientist at Goddard’s Analytical Laboratory of Astrobiology, finds the existence of small, volatile organic compounds in the samples exciting. This includes amino acids that are essential for life on Earth. And they are found not only on the moon and asteroids. They probably exist in a variety of places in the solar system that she and her team want to understand.

“We believe that some amino acids in lunar soils may have formed from precursor molecules that are smaller, more volatile compounds such as formaldehyde or hydrogen cyanide,” she said. “Our goal of the study is to identify and quantify these small organic volatile compounds, as well as any amino acids, and to use data to understand the prebiotic organic chemistry of the moon.”

Caring for valuable lunar specimens

A few years ago, the Artemis Curation team in Johnson, led by NASA scientist Julie Mitchell, began planning a new facility. They wanted a place where Apollo 17 materials could be processed for further study. The establishment of the laboratory also made it possible to plan the delivery and state-of-the-art handling of stones and dust from future missions to the moon. Artemis will be the next to rise from NASA. Although the mission is delayed, its final launch (possibly in 2025) deliver the first woman to the moon. It will also begin collecting lunar samples where Apollo stopped.

The first step was to design and upgrade a special laboratory for sample preparation. “By doing this work, we are not just promoting Artemis’ intelligence. We are promoting the return of samples in the future and the study of the rest of the solar system by humans, ”Mitchell said. “I have the great honor of contributing to this small way by developing opportunities to collect these materials, bring them home safely and preserve them for the long term.”

It is difficult to pack Apollo samples for shipping and store them in the original. According to Ryan Zeigler, curator of the Apollo sample, doing it in the cold is even harder. But, he said, it was worth it. Ziegler works in Astronomical Research and Exploration (ARES) division at Johnson. “This is an important lesson for Artemis, as the ability to process samples in the cold will be even more important for Artemis’ mission than for Apollo. This work gives us some lessons and gives a good mood for Artemis.

Storage of things

Storing samples cold is very important. It keeps materials from other worlds safe and free from dirt, stones and life. Why is this important? On the one hand, scientists want to study ONLY the materials of the Moon, not the earth gods. This is important if they want to know what the conditions are on the moon’s surface.

In addition, future lunar missions will focus on collecting materials from the polar regions of the moon. This means that ice crystals can be returned, mixed with dust and stones. Other parts of the Moon may contain amino acids or other organic compounds. They come from pieces of asteroids that crashed into the moon’s surface. Obviously, it is important to keep ice intact, frozen, and amino acids and other materials safe from soil contamination. That’s why some of Apollo’s samples all these years have been “on ice”.

50 years of storage combined with research will pay off

Both frozen and unfrozen Apollo 17 samples arrived safely in Goddard. Now lunar scientists are focused on revealing their secrets. Current work on these specimens and future returns from other places will give a new insight into the origin and evolution of other worlds in the solar system.

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NASA Goddard scientists have begun studying 50-year-old samples of Frozen Apollo 17