Secrets of the Early Solar System -NASA Scientists to Probe Pristine Apollo 17 Moon Rocks

Apollo 17 Moon Rocks


“One should consider this a new mission to the Moon,” says Chip Shearer, a geologist at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque who plans to study the core sample using the latest laboratory techniques. Getting information from the decades-old core “is really a continuation of Apollo and a bridge to our future”, he said on 20 March at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference.

At some point in the coming year, reports journal Nature, “curators at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, will don protective suits and gloves, enter the high-tech laboratory that houses the trove of Moon rocks, and open a long metal tube that has been sealed since 1972. That’s when Apollo 17 astronauts pounded it into the ground in the Moon’s Taurus-Littrow Valley to collect rocks,”

Findings from the pristine Apollo core are timely as NASA plans to begin flying scientific instruments to the Moon’s surface as early as next year — its first venture there since 1972. Researchers should push to get as much science as possible out of those missions, for example by insisting that they go to mostly unexplored targets, such as the Moon’s far side, said David Kring, a planetary scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston.

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The Apollo 17 astronauts collected the core from rocks piled up by a landslide at the base of a small mountain in the Taurus-Littrow Valley. The rock sample could still contain water or other volatile substances that were once trapped beneath the landslide. If so, researchers will be able to measure the volatile substances much more precisely than they could have 50 years ago, reports Nature, and start to answer lingering questions about how the Taurus-Littrow Valley — which is as deep as the Grand Canyon — formed.

As we reported on March 17th, the Apollo 17 sample comprises about 800 grams (1.8 pounds) of material, still encased in a “drive tube” that was pounded into the lunar regolith to collect a core of material. That core preserves not just the rocks themselves but also the stratigraphy from below the surface so today’s scientists can, in a laboratory, study the rock layers exactly as they existed on the Moon. The core has been carefully stored at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, since December 1972.

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“The technology available in the ’60s and ’70s wasn’t able to do what we can do now,” said Jessica Barnes, an astronomer soon to join the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory. “Now we can go to a mineral and we can look at the very fine details, down to almost the width of a human hair.”

Other teams will be studying samples that have also been specially curated, some from Apollo 17 that were brought to Earth and then kept frozen, and samples from the Apollo 15 mission which have been stored in helium since 1971.

The image at the top of the page was taken on 11 December 1972 — Scientist-astronaut Harrison H. Schmitt collects lunar rake samples at Station 1 during the first Apollo 17 extravehicular activity (EVA) at the Taurus-Littrow landing site. Schmitt is the lunar module pilot. The Lunar Rake, an Apollo Lunar Geology Hand Tool, is used to collect discrete samples of rocks and rock chips ranging in size from one-half inch (1.3 cm) to one inch (2.5 cm). (Eugene A. Cernan, Apollo 17 Commander)

“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.”

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Six of the nine teams will look at one of the three remaining lunar samples, from Apollo missions 15, 16, and 17, which have never been exposed to Earth’s atmosphere. The particular sample these teams will study came to Earth vacuum-sealed on the Moon by the Apollo 17 astronauts Harrison Schmitt and Gene Cernan in 1972.

NASA has only collected samples from a few places on the Moon so far, but NASA knows from the remote sensing data that the Moon is a complex geologic body. From orbit, the agency has identified types of rocks and minerals that are not present in the Apollo sample collection.

“Returned samples are an investment in the future. These samples were deliberately saved so we can take advantage of today’s more advanced and sophisticated technology to answer questions we didn’t know we needed to ask,” said Lori Glaze, acting director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division in Washington, DC.

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 Barnes will 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.

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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.

The samples won’t be opened right away. First, the teams will work together and with the curation staff at NASA Johnson 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 the Planetary Science Division and will be funded by the Lunar Discovery and Exploration Program.

The Daily Galaxy, Jake Burba via Nature, New York Times, and NASA

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