An ‘Apollo Can Opener’ Will Soon Unseal a 50-Year-Old Box of Moon Soil

Just in time for Christmas.
Chris Young
The ESA's piercing toolANGSA science team/ESA

Scientists from the European Space Agency (ESA) will soon open a container of Moon soil that has gone untouched since it was collected by the Apollo 17 astronauts almost 50 years ago, a press statement reveals.

To open the sample, they will have to use a specialized piercing tool jokingly titled the "Apollo Can Opener" by members of the team. The tool was specially designed to open the specific soil sample, designated the number 73001.

A double-sealed 50-year-old Moon soil sample

The Moon soil sample was collected on the Moon in 1972 at the Taurus-Littrow Valley by Apollo 17 astronaut Gene Cernan, the last person to have set foot on the Moon. Cernan hammered a 70-cm-long cylindrical tube into the Moon's surface to retrieve a core sample of the lunar soil. The sample was then sealed in a vacuum-tight container on the Moon before it was returned to Earth. Once on Earth, the vacuum-sealed sample was then placed in a vacuum chamber for added protection.

An ‘Apollo Can Opener’ Will Soon Unseal a 50-Year-Old Box of Moon Soil
Apollo 17 astronaut Gene Cernan preparing to retrieve lunar soil samples. Source: NASA

By unsealing the almost 50-year-old sample, the researchers hope to extract and investigate lunar gases that may have been preserved over half a century since the sample was first retrieved. The operation is part of the larger Apollo Next-Generation Sample Analysis (ANGSA) program overseen by NASA. It is the first time the ESA will open and analyze a soil sample returned from the Moon.

Investigating the evolution of volatiles on the Moon

ESA's piercing tool was specially designed to puncture the Moon soil container and then capture gases as they escape. These gas samples will then be collected in containers and sent to laboratories around the world for analysis. "Each gas component that is analyzed can help to tell a different part of the story about the origin and evolution of volatiles [elements and compounds that can be readily vaporized] on the Moon and within the early Solar System," says Francesca McDonald, science and project lead at ESA's contribution to ANGSA.

Aside from providing valuable scientific data, the ESA researchers say the sample analysis operation can help to develop new sample return containers and protocols for future missions, improving our ability to investigate elements and compounds from future samples from the Moon and Mars. In September this year, for example, NASA's Perseverance rover collected its first rock core sample from Mars. The U.S. space agency hopes to return that sample, and others, to Earth at some point in the 2030s. Meanwhile, scientists in Australia are developing a semi-autonomous lunar rover for NASA's upcoming Artemis Moon missions that will collect more samples for future generations to unseal.

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