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Forum:Mercury - Gemini - Apollo
Topic:Opening sealed Apollo moon rock samples
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Robert PearlmanNASA release
NASA Goddard Scientists Begin Studying 50-year-old Frozen Apollo 17 Samples

Scientists at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, recently received samples of the lunar surface that have been curated in a freezer at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston since Apollo 17 astronauts returned them to Earth in December 1972.

This research is part of the Apollo Next Generation Sample Analysis Program, or ANGSA, an effort to study the samples returned from the Apollo Program in advance of the upcoming Artemis missions to the Moon's South Pole.

However, the process of getting the samples from Johnson to researchers at Goddard – as well as researchers at NASA's Ames Research Center in California's Silicon Valley, the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C., and the University of Arizona, Tucson – wasn't simple. It's a process that began more than four years ago when NASA's Julie Mitchell and her Artemis curation team at Johnson began designing and retrofitting a facility to process the frozen Apollo 17 samples. This was a new approach and scientists were excited to employ a technique that could be applied to future lunar missions.

"We started this in early 2018 and there's been a lot of technical challenges that we've had to overcome to get to this point," said Mitchell. "This was seen as a practice run for preparing a facility for future cold sample processing."

"By doing this work we're not just facilitating Artemis exploration, but we're facilitating future sample return and human exploration into the rest of the solar system," Mitchell added. "I feel very privileged to contribute in this small way by developing the capabilities for us to collect these materials, bring them home safely, and curate them for the long term."

Above: A frozen Apollo 17 sample being processed inside a nitrogen-purged glove box at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston. The sample is one of many being studied as part of the ANGSA program. (NASA/Robert Markowitz)

Once the facility was ready, Ryan Zeigler, Apollo sample curator in the Astromaterials Research and Exploration Science (ARES) Division at Johnson, and his team had to adapt to the unique conditions designed by Mitchell's team to keep the samples frozen during processing, which included decreased visibility due to frost and challenges manipulating the samples while working with thick gloves in a nitrogen-purged glove box, all of which took place inside a walk-in freezer maintained at minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 20 C). Being able to keep samples frozen will be important for Artemis as astronauts potentially return ice samples from the Moon's South Pole.

"Everything we do involves a lot of logistics and a lot of infrastructure, but adding the cold makes it a lot harder," said Zeigler. "It's an important learning lesson for Artemis, as being able to process samples in the cold will be even more important for the Artemis mission than it is for Apollo. This work gives us some lessons learned and a good feed forward for Artemis."

Once the frozen samples were processed and subdivided at Johnson by lunar sample processor Jeremy Kent, the samples were then express shipped in a cooler with dry ice, immediately opened at Goddard, and stored in a secure freezer. For the scientists now working with the treasures, there's something special about receiving samples that haven't been investigated in nearly five decades.

Jamie Elsila, a research scientist in the Astrobiology Analytical Laboratory at Goddard, is focusing on the study of small, volatile organic compounds for her research and analysis of the sample. Previous research showed that some lunar samples contain amino acids, which are essential to life on Earth. Her team wants to understand their origin and distribution in the solar system.

"We think some of the amino acids in the lunar soils may have formed from precursor molecules, which are smaller, more volatile compounds such as formaldehyde or hydrogen cyanide," said Elsila. "Our research goal is to identify and quantify these small organic volatile compounds, as well as any amino acids, and to use the data to understand the prebiotic organic chemistry of the Moon."

Above: Three ARES scientists process frozen Apollo 17 samples inside a walk-in freezer maintained at minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 20 C). Beneath the laboratory gown, they don parkas, gloves, and hats to keep warm. (NASA/Robert Markowitz)

Natalie Curran, principal investigator for the Mid Atlantic Noble Gas Research Lab at Goddard, focuses on understanding the history that the samples may have experienced during their lifetime on the Moon. The surface of the Moon is a harsh environment and unlike the Earth, it doesn't have an atmosphere to protect it from exposure to space.

"Our work allows us to use noble gases, such as argon, helium, neon, and xenon, to measure the duration a sample has been exposed to cosmic rays, and this can help us understand the history of that sample," said Curran. "Cosmic rays can be damaging to organic material that may be in a sample, so understanding the duration helps to determine the effects that exposure has had on the organic."

Both Elsila and Curran are in possession of frozen and non-frozen lunar samples. When these samples were brought to Earth, a portion was stored at room temperature and another portion was frozen, allowing for comparison between the two groups. Scientists will analyze both sets of samples to ascertain if there are differences in the organic content. Understanding any variations caused by the different curation methods might inform future decisions about how to store samples returned by Artemis astronauts, part of what the ARES team at Johnson will be doing.

For Elsila, "it's very cool to think about all the work that went into collecting the samples on the Moon and then all the forethought and care that went into preserving them for us to be able to analyze at this time," she noted.

As for Curran, "when you think of how these samples have come from another world, how far they have travelled and the solar system history they have preserved inside of them, it always blows my mind," she added.

Space Cadet CarlGene Cernan would have been so proud of how his collected samples are being analyzed in preparing the Artemis team for their upcoming work. It would also be great if they let Harrison Schmitt join them for a day in the laboratory!
lspoozAs a Harvard PhD geologist who collected some of these samples, Schmitt should be there as long as he's willing... great PR and just seems proper.
DirkWhy they waited so long?
Robert PearlmanNASA knew that the technology used to study the lunar samples would improve over time and so certain samples were set aside purposely to wait for the geological tools to advance.

Now that NASA is preparing to return to the moon, the agency's scientists felt it was time to use the now modern technology to analyze the pristine samples.

BlackarrowProbably the best example of this is the 2008 analysis of Apollo 15 and Apollo 17 volcanic glass beads at Brown University. Previous analyses of moon samples had deduced that the Moon was bone-dry. Alberto Saal's team used newly-developed analytical tools to identify significant quantities of water in those glass beads, on a par with the water-content of lava extruded from the bed of the Atlantic Ocean.
MCroft04So if the moon was formed by a giant impact, how did the water — a volatile — survive? It should have been vaporized by the impact.
BlackarrowExactly! One of the key arguments used in support of the "Giant Impact Hypothesis" was that such a violent impact would inevitably have vaporized the material which later coalesced into what we now call the Moon, and that would have boiled off the volatiles, neatly explaining the apparent lack of water in the Apollo samples. The later finding of significant quantities of water in those Apollo volcanic glass beads raised some awkward questions for advocates of the G.I.H.

In the words of the late Erik Hauri, one of the key researchers who sampled those tiny drops of water: "That's a really, really difficult knot to untie."

I'm not a geologist and I'm not going to go into any details about this fascinating subject. Suffice it to say that there are numerous scientific papers on the subject between 2008 and the present day. Several alternatives to the G.I.H. have been suggested (including a head-on collision between Earth and an asteroid; and multiple smaller impacts by water-bearing asteroids). Our understanding of the issues continues to evolve.

The late Professor Karl Popper famously argued that scientific knowledge advances best not by constantly reinforcing existing hypotheses but by disproving them.

HeadshotDo not forget that the Moon formed an estimated 4.5 billion years ago, plenty of time for water to accumulate on it.

Two possible mechanism are that: (1) water ice may have been deposited by impacting comets or other errant water-bearing solar system objects, and (2) water is probably still being produced (albeit in minuscule quantities) by the reaction of oxygen-rich lunar rocks, and hydrogen from solar wind, leaving traces of water everywhere on the Moon, but especially in cold, permanently-shadowed craters at either pole.

BlackarrowSo noted, but I did say I wasn't intending to go into detail about this: not because I don't want to, but because I think it's rather too esoteric for this thread. To be clear: I'm not trying to argue that the Giant Impact Hypothesis is wrong. It might be, or it might not be. I'm simply pointing out that it used to be talked about as if it were the only show in town. Since 2008 it has serious questions to answer. I recommend anyone who is interested in the subject to search online for the numerous scientific papers and more approachable publications that detail the studies and suggestions that have arisen in the past 14 years.

Of course, it might be easier (finally) to explain the origin of the Moon if we could get hold of a lot of new samples of lunar rock, dust, volcanic glass and permanently-shadowed ice in the near future!

MCroft04The rocks holding that water are 3 billion years old. So you cannot explain it by bringing water to the moon in the interim.

Planetary geologists who support the impact hypothesis — not a theory — have tried to model a glancing blow that would have sucked the volatiles (including the water) into space and then back into the coalescing mess. The problem is that they have not been able to find a solution (model) that accomplishes what they want to believe.

I'm a geologist — but not a planetary geologist — but know enough that the honorable Jack Schmitt is suspicious of this hypothesis. Me too!

Space Cadet CarlGreat discussion here... and I think we pretty much answered the question of why we held back Apollo samples for scientists to analyze 50 years in the future, anticipating their whole new mindset and more advanced tools.
Blackarrow
quote:
Originally posted by MCroft04:
...the honorable Jack Schmitt is suspicious of this hypothesis.
At a (slightly belated) 30th anniversary celebration of Apollo 17, held at the National Air and Space Museum in March 2003, Dr Schmitt described himself as "...one of a small minority who consider [the Giant Impact Hypothesis] to be highly unlikely." I suspect that the results of those tests on Apollo volcanic glass samples brought a smile to his face.

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