Gas May Hide in 50-Year-Old Moon Sample

Sample 73001, vacuum-sealed in 1972, is now being opened
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Mar 9, 2022 10:00 AM CST
Gas May Hide in 50-Year-Old Moon Sample
Astronaut Gene Cernan prepares to collect lunar sample 73001 from the moon during the Apollo 17 mission in 1972.   (Wikimedia Commons/NASA)

The last time astronauts set foot on the moon, in 1972, they hammered two 1.5-by-14-inch tubes into the lunar surface, which were then retrieved along with the soil inside. Sample 73002 was brought back to Earth in an unsealed container, which was opened in 2019. But sample 73001 was vacuum-sealed on the moon before return. Now, 50 years after it was collected from a landslide deposit near Lara Crater, the sample is being exposed, along with the lunar gases it's believed to contain, per NPR. According to NASA, sample 73001—one of only two drive tubes that "were vacuum-sealed on the moon in this way" and "the first to be opened"—could contain volatiles like water ice and carbon dioxide, which evaporate at normal temperatures.

There might even be gases that escaped from a fault at the site of the Apollo 17 mission, NASA says. We should soon know. Scientists at Johnson Space Center in Houston opened a protective coating on the tube on Feb. 11. There was no lunar gas, suggesting the tube has remained sealed over the decades. They're now working to pierce the sample and trap any gases that escape using a specially developed tool known as the "Apollo can opener," NPR reports. The next step will be to use modern mass-spectrometry technology to identify gases present. "Each gas component that is analyzed can help to tell a different part of the story about the origin and evolution of volatiles on the moon and within the early solar system," says Francesca McDonald, project head at the European Space Agency.

"Understanding the geologic history and evolution of the Moon samples at the Apollo landing sites will help us prepare for the types of samples that may be encountered" during upcoming Artemis missions, which aim to "bring back cold and sealed samples from near the lunar South Pole," adds Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA's Science Mission Directorate, per NASA. Sample 73002 has already "revealed an interesting array of grains and smaller objects, known as rocklets," according to the space agency. Sample 73001 might reveal the cause of the lunar landslide. And as sample analysis team member Charles Shearer tells Discover, it's crucial to know whether there are "any sort of tectonic- or earthquake-related activities that could threaten human activities on the moon." (More NASA stories.)

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