NASA gifts scientists 50-year-old Moon samples to unwrap this holiday season and help unravel space secrets

Nine teams have been selected to study Moon samples that have been sealed for half a century. By studying them for the first time, a new generation of scientists will help advance our understanding of the Solar System and how it evolved

                            NASA gifts scientists 50-year-old Moon samples to unwrap this holiday season and help unravel space secrets
NASA scientists (left to right) Sarah Valencia, Barbara Cohen, and Natalie Curran hold Moon soil samples collected by Apollo astronauts (NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/Molly Wasser)

Astrochemist Jamie Elsila at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, recently unwrapped a box of Apollo Moon soil.

She is one of the many scientists who have got an exciting and unusual gift from NASA to analyze in the new year — 50-year-old samples retrieved from the Moon and sealed for half a century.

By studying the lunar samples for the first time, a new generation of scientists — many of whom were not even born when the last astronauts took these samples — will help answer long-standing questions about the evolution of our Solar System.

According to NASA, two Goddard labs will be the first to study the Apollo samples that were frozen soon after landing back on Earth.

"We are using instruments that did not exist during early analyses of Moon samples. Because our tools today are more sensitive, we can analyze things that are present in tiny amounts. We now can separate chemical compounds from a mixture, making it easier to identify them," says Elsila, an astrochemist in the Astrobiology Analytical Laboratory at NASA Goddard, in a statement

Elsila leads a team that will study samples of regolith, or Moon soil, collected in 1972 near the Apollo 17 landing site of Taurus-Littrow Valley on the eastern rim of Mare Serenitatis.

Her lab analyzes amino acids in Apollo samples, meteorites, and comet dust. Amino acids are simple organic compounds that have been around for billions of years and are critical to the functioning of life. The team will look for molecules such as hydrogen cyanide or formaldehyde that form amino acids.
Scientists explain that unlike Earth, the surface of the Moon is better preserved due to the absence of wind, storms and other geologic processes that can erode the surface.

Hence, studying the amount and types of "life-yielding molecules" in Moon soil could help scientists learn more about the evolution of the solar system. They can also shed light on the early geologic processes that shaped Earth, say experts.

"We don't have any rocks on Earth that are older than about 4 billion years old, so we don't know exactly how much volcanic activity there was or how heavily Earth was bombarded by asteroids. Since the Earth and the Moon formed together, we can use our findings from the Moon to infer what happened on the early Earth," says Barbara Cohen, a planetary scientist who heads Goddard's Mid-Atlantic Noble Gas Research Laboratory, or MNGRL, another Goddard lab selected to study Apollo samples.

Jose Aponte and Hannah McLain work in the Astrobiology Analytical Laboratory at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. The scientists who work in this lab analyze amino acids in Apollo samples, meteorites, and comet dust — in other words, in well-preserved remnants of the early solar system. (NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/Molly Wasser)

The Goddard labs will use cutting-edge machines to detect the chemical composition in grains of soil as small as a speck of dust. This will enable scientists to study how the Moon’s surface chemistry was shaped over eons by radiation from space and from the Sun, says NASA. 

"We will use our findings to paint a picture of what kind of space environment affected Taurus-Littrow Valley over hundreds of millions of years. This will provide important geologic context to scientists who analyze rocks from that site, especially our colleagues who are studying whether the buildings blocks of life formed on Earth or were delivered here from space," says Natalie Curran, a postdoctoral researcher in the Mid-Atlantic Noble Gas Research Laboratory (MNGRL) at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.

NASA celebrated the 50th anniversary of the historic Apollo 11 Moon mission this year. Earlier this year, the agency selected nine teams that will study carefully stored pieces of the Moon. A total of $8 million has been awarded to the teams. 

According to NASA, six of the nine teams will look at one of the three remaining lunar samples, from Apollo missions 15, 16, and 17. The particular sample these teams will study came to Earth vacuum-sealed on the Moon by Apollo 17 astronauts Harrison Schmitt and Gene Cernan in 1972.

The Apollo 17 sample comprises about 800 grams (1.8 pounds) of material, encased in a "drive tube" that was pounded into the lunar regolith to collect a core of the material.

Other teams will study samples that have also been specially curated, which includes samples from the Apollo 15 mission that have been stored in helium since 1971.

Scientist-astronaut Harrison H. Schmitt collects lunar rake samples on December 11, 1972, 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)

"Fortunately for today's scientists, Apollo-era leaders had the foresight to save much of the 842 pounds (382 kilograms) of Moon soil and rocks retrieved by NASA astronauts 50 years ago for future generations. Now, the future that Apollo-era scientists envisioned has come," says NASA.

Another science objective of both Goddard sample teams is to figure out what kind of storage systems are the most effective in keeping samples uncontaminated for long periods of time. 

"This type of research is crucial to scientists studying the prebiotic seeds of life. The information Goddard scientists will glean will inform not only the proper storage of samples to be collected during NASA's Artemis mission to the Moon, but also during the Mars 2020 sample-collection mission to the Red Planet, and the OSIRIS-REx mission to the asteroid Bennu, where a spacecraft will collect 60 to 2,000 grams of dirt and rocks and then deliver them to Earth in 2023," says NASA.

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