The Apollo missions of the 1960s and 70s were the most prolific collectors of space rocks, bringing back 382 kilograms of rock, debris and debris, divided into 2,196 samples. These samples have now been living on Earth for about five decades, but not all of them have been opened. Some sample tubes were sealed for examination at a later date. Many of the scientists now studying lunar rocks weren’t even born when the samples came back, says Francis McCubbin, curator of astrological materials at Johnson Space Center in Texas and co-director of the Apollo Next Generation Sample Analysis (ANGSA) program.

As part of ANGSA, researchers are now opening six samples from the Apollo 15 and Apollo 17 missions that have either been frozen or kept under vacuum since their collection. They want to learn more about the moon’s volatile gases, which they hope contain the curation techniques, as well as the historical geological processes that have shaped the Earth’s satellite. The biggest focus, however, is on understanding how curation techniques work, as this will affect the design of sampling protocols for NASA’s upcoming Artemis mission.

NASA

Astronaut and geologist Harrison Schmitt can be seen in this 1972 photograph of dust and rocks being collected from the lunar surface with a “moon rake,” one of the tools used to collect samples during the Apollo missions.

Zoe Wilbur, a graduate student at the University of Arizona, is part of the team tasked with evaluating Apollo’s freezing technology. Wilbur plans to compare a frozen sample with a sample from the same rock that has been at room temperature for 50 years. She hopes the frozen sample has new information to share. But she notes that “even if we find out that there is no difference, that’s still a really interesting result.”

Wilbur is excited to be part of the effort to send people back to the moon and the secrets they may uncover once they are there. “I didn’t think that people would walk the moon again in my life,” she says. “It’s almost surreal.”

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