Why did NASA wait 50 years to open this sample of the Moon?

A metal tube, containing lunar soil samples, has been sealed since 1972, when it was collected by the Apollo 17 mission. But now the Nasa will finally open it.

The 35cm long and 4cm diameter vacuum-sealed container contains rocks and dust from a landslide deposit in the region of the Moon known as the Taurus-Littrow Valley. Scientists hope that lunar gases could also have been stored inside.

When the sample in question was collected by astronauts Eugene Cernan and Harrison “Jack” Schmitt in December 1972, there were not many resources for analysis.

But the team believed that in the future, science and technology would continue to advance even if there were no more manned missions to the Moon – Apollo 17 was the last time man set foot on Earth’s natural satellite. Thus, he preserved intact some of the 2,196 samples collected during the six trips of the program, between 1969 and 1972, to be studied in the following decades.

Now, with modern instruments, NASA has already started a long and painstaking process of opening the tube, which should take several weeks, in partnership with ESA (European Space Agency). A collector-type device, called the “Apollo can opener”, has been specially developed to pierce it, without letting gas escape or contaminating the material.

moon sample - ANGSA/ESA science team - ANGSA/ESA science team

A special can opener will remove rocks and any gases from the tube

Image: ANGSA/ESA Science Team

Only two Apollo program tubes were vacuum sealed by astronauts on the Moon itself at the time of collection — the others were sealed in the usual way, without a full seal. This is the first of these two “specials” to be opened. On top of that, there are only three other intact samples left (one that arrived sealed and two “normal”).

The gems are stored in a reinforced structure, with a second layer of vacuum and controlled atmosphere, at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

precious gas

To collect this sample, the astronauts dug the tube into the ground and reported that it was very cold. For NASA, this is an indication that volatile substances were also trapped, such as ice and carbon dioxide, which would evaporate at normal temperatures.

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Apollo 17 astronaut Gene Cernan prepares to collect lunar samples

Image: NASA

Extracting gases is a challenge for scientists, as the quantity must be minimal – so be careful when opening. If they succeed, they will have a unique chance to study them, with highly sensitive spectrometers capable of measuring and analyzing individual molecules. This could help untangle the geological history of the Moon and the evolution of the solar system.

In a few months, the sample rocks should be fragmented, so that different teams can analyze them. An interesting question is where it was taken from: a landslide area. But if there is no rain on the Moon, how come there are landslides? One more answer the researchers hope to get.

This study should also help prepare astronauts for future Artemis missions, which will bring man (and the first woman) back to the Moon. They will collect new soil and gas samples, in large quantities, to compare them to old ones and to advance the understanding of lunar transformations.

After several delays, the first landing on our satellite is not expected before 2026, according to the space agency. In the long term, the plan is to establish a permanent moon base.

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