The time of space missions


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The Apollo missions of the ’60s and’ 70s were the most prolific collectors of space rock, yielding 382 kilograms of rock, rubble and earth, spread over 2,196 samples. These samples have now resided on Earth for about five decades, but not all of them have been opened. A few sample tubes were kept sealed for study at a later date. Many scientists currently studying moon rocks weren’t even born when the samples returned, says Francis McCubbin, curator of astromaterials at Johnson Space Center, Texas, and co-lead 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 been stored frozen or under vacuum since their collection. They want to learn more about the Moon’s volatile gases, which they hope the healing techniques have contained, as well as the historical geological processes that have shaped the Earth’s satellite. The main goal, however, is to understand how curation techniques work, as this will inform the design of sample collection protocols for NASA’s upcoming Artemis mission.

Astronaut and geologist Harrison Schmitt is shown in this 1972 photograph collecting dust and rock from the Moon’s surface with a “moon rake,” one of the tools used for sample collection during the Apollo missions.

Zoe Wilbur, a graduate student from the University of Arizona, is part of the team evaluating Apollo’s freezing technique. 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 will have new information to share. But she notes that “even if we find that there is no difference, it is still a really interesting result.”

Wilbur is excited to be a part of the effort to send humans back to the Moon and any secrets they might uncover when they get there. “I didn’t think people would walk on the moon again in my lifetime,” she says. “It’s almost surreal.”

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