Eugene A. Cernan/NASA/AFP via Getty Images
Fifty years ago, astronauts on one of NASA’s Apollo missions hammered a pair of 14-inch tubes into the lunar surface. Once the tubes were filled with rock and soil, the astronauts – Eugene Cernan and Harrison “Jack” Schmidt – sealed one of the tubes with a vacuum, while the other was placed in a regular, airtight container. Both were brought back to Earth.
Now, scientists at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston are preparing to carefully open that first tube, which has been hermetically sealed all these years since. 1972 Apollo 17 . mission The last time humans set foot on the moon.
why all this time? To take advantage of the technology of the future – our present.
“The agency knew that science and technology would advance and allow scientists to study materials in new ways to address new questions in the future,” Laurie Glaze of NASA says:Director of Planetary Sciences Department.
The unsealed tube was one of those missions Opened in 2019. Lunar soil layers have been preserved, and the sample has provided insights into topics such as landslides in airless spaces.
Robert Markowitz/NASA-Johnson Space Center
Since the specimen now opened has been sealed, it may contain something in addition to rock and soil: gas. The tube can contain substances known as volatiles, which evaporate at normal temperatures, such as water ice and carbon dioxide. The material at the bottom of the tube was extremely cold at the time it was collected.
The amount of these gases in the sample is expected to be very low, so the scientists use a special device called a manifold, designed by a team at Washington University in St. Louis, to extract and collect the gas.
Another instrument has been developed at the European Space Agency (ESA) to penetrate the sample and capture the gases as they escape. Scientists there called this tool “Apollo can opener. “
The exact process of opening and capturing has begun, and is very good so far: the seal on the inner sample tube appears to be intact. Now, the drilling process is in progress, with the special “can opener” ready to trap any gases that might come out.
If there are gases in the sample, scientists will be able to use modern mass spectrometry technology to identify them. (mass spectrometry It is a tool for analyzing and measuring molecules.) The gas can also be divided into small samples for study by other researchers.
James Blair / NASA
“Each component of the gas analyzed can help tell a different part of the story about the origin and evolution of volatiles on the Moon and within the early Solar System,” Francesca MacDonald explainedwho leads the project at the European Space Agency.
10 years after his proposal, the project sparked excitement, said Ryan Ziegler, Apollo sample curator at NASA. And with these two new tools, he says, there is now “the unique equipment to make this possible.”
Analysis of these samples is associated with NASA’s Artemis missions, which will send humans to the moon for the first time in more than 50 years. Part of Artemis’ plan is to bring a woman and a person of color to the surface of the moon For the first time ever.