Geologist Harrison Schmitt performs Moon tasks during Apollo 17 mission in December 1972.
Credit: NASA

 

Unopened treasures rocketed back to Earth by Apollo moonwalkers. They are lunar collectibles returned to our planet in 1971-72.

A new NASA program — the Apollo Next Generation Sample Analysis (ANGSA) — has selected nine teams to continue the science legacy of the Apollo missions by studying pieces of the Moon that have been carefully stored and untouched for nearly 50 years.

Team selections

A total of $8 million has been awarded to the teams.

The nine institutions include:

NASA Ames Research Center/Bay Area Environmental Research Institute: A team led by Alexander Sehlke will complete an experiment started 50 years ago by studying the frozen lunar samples from Apollo 17 to see how volatiles like water are stored in the radiation environment of the lunar surface, which is not protected by an atmosphere like Earth.

NASA Ames: A team led by David Blake and Richard Walrothwill study the vacuum-sealed sample to study “space weathering” or how exposure to the space environment affects the Moon’s surface.

NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center: A team led by Jamie Elsila Cook will study the vacuumed-sealed sample to better understand how small organic molecules—namely, precursors to amino acids—are preserved on the Moon.

NASA Goddard: A team led by Barbara Cohen and Natalie Curran will study the vacuum-sealed sample to investigate the geologic history of the Apollo 17 site. They’ll specifically be looking at the abundance of noble gases in the sample, which can tell them about the sample’s age.

University of Arizona: A team led by Jessica Barneswill study how curation affects the amount of hydrogen-bearing minerals in lunar soil, which will help us better understand how water is locked in minerals on the Moon.

University of California Berkeley: A team led by Kees Welten will study how micrometeorite and meteorite impacts may have affected the geology of the lunar surface.

US Naval Research Laboratory: A team led by Katherine Burgess will look at the frozen samples and the samples stored in helium to study how airless bodies are affected by exposure to the space environment.

University of New Mexico: A team led by Chip Shearer will look at the vacuum-sealed sample to study the geologic history of the Apollo 17 site. They will be studying samples from a region that had been cold enough for water to freeze—called a “cold trap.” This will be the first time a sample from one of these cold traps will be examined in the lab.

Mount Holyoke College/Planetary Science Institute: A team led by Darby Dyar will look at both the vacuum-sealed samples and samples stored on helium to study volcanic activity on the Moon. They’ll specifically look at tiny glass beads that formed rapidly during an ancient lunar eruption.

Astronaut David Scott, commander of Apollo 15, standing on the slope of Hadley Delta.
Credit: NASA

Open up

The samples won’t be opened right away, a NASA press statement explains.

First, the teams will work together and with the curation staff at NASA Johnson Space Center to determine the best way to open the sample to avoid contaminating them and maximize the science to be gained.

The teams for the Apollo Next-Generation Sample Analysis grants were selected by NASA’s Planetary Science Division and will be funded by the space agency’s Lunar Discovery and Exploration Program.

The goal of the ANGSA program is to maximize the science derived from samples returned by the Apollo Program in preparation for future lunar missions anticipated in the 2020s and beyond.

One of the Apollo 16 sample boxes being opened in the Lunar Receiving Laboratory on Earth. The box contains a large rock and many small sample bags.
Credit: NASA/Johnson Space Center

Wholly or largely unstudied

Although most Apollo samples have been well characterized over the years, there remain several types of samples that have remained wholly or largely unstudied since their return, and have been curated under special conditions.

Unopened vacuum-sealed Apollo samples: Nine “special samples” were collected in containers that had indium knife-edge seals to maintain a lunar-like vacuum, and three such containers remain sealed from Apollo 15, 16 and 17 missions.

Frozen Apollo samples: Several Apollo 17 samples were initially processed under nominal laboratory conditions in a nitrogen cabinet at room temperature, but placed into cold storage (-20°C) within one month of return: six subsamples of Apollo 17 drill core, nine subsamples of permanently shadowed soils, a subsample of soil, and all of the lunar rock identified as 71036.

Apollo samples stored in Helium: Apollo 15 Special Environmental Sample Container (SESC) specimens were opened in a helium cabinet inside an organic clean room at the University of California, Berkeley. A total of 21 subsamples have been continuously stored in Helium since this initial processing.

Vice President Mike Pence, center, views Sample 15014, which was collected during Apollo 15 with NASA’s Apollo Sample Curator Ryan Zeigler, left, and Apollo 17 astronaut and geologist Dr. Harrison Schmitt, right, in Lunar Curation Laboratory at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, Thursday, Aug. 23, 2018 in Houston, Texas. Sample 15014 is one of nine samples out of the 2,196 collected during the Apollo missions that was sealed inside its container on the Moon and still contains gasses from the Moon. Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky

Advance our understanding

“By studying these precious lunar samples for the first time, a new generation of scientists will help advance our understanding of our lunar neighbor and prepare for the next era of exploration of the Moon and beyond,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, Associate Administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, DC.

“This exploration will bring with it new and unique samples into the best labs right here on Earth.”

Research avenues

Once the teams have reported the output from their research, how will all this new analysis be aggregated and shared to offer, perhaps, different views of the Moon?

“The big consortium will need to organize itself, and make overall plans as a group,” responded Jeffrey Grossman, Discipline Scientist for ANGSA at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Studied Apollo 15 sample 15445 was melted during the Imbrium basin-forming impact 3.84 billion years ago. This sample is about 6 centimeters across.
Credit: NASA/Johnson Space Center

“They have a wide array of individual scientific goals, and all of the selected proposals had some kind of publication plan,” Grossman told Inside Outer Space. “The interesting thing,” he added, “is what kinds of synergy will develop within the consortium as all these avenues of research are pursued on a single sample.”

“Behind the scenes,” Grossman said, “we are also increasing the resources available to the Johnson Space Center curation team, to make sure that lots of great science can be done within the three-year period of the consortium awards. It’s hard to predict how this will come out, but I think NASA has chosen a fantastic team and is doing the right things to enable it to function as a group.”

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