NASA opens a 50-year-old lunar sample to prepare for the Artemis moon landings

The space agency is using the ESA's "Apollo can opener".
Chris Young
The photo credit line may appear like thisNASA/James Blair

NASA scientists just opened a lunar sample that had remained sealed since it was collected on the Moon 50 years ago, a blog post from the space agency reveals.

The organization said it was opening the sample, one of the last remaining unopened lunar samples from its Apollo missions, in order to prepare for its upcoming Artemis moon landings.

Unsealing the Moon's history

The container of lunar soil is in the process of being opened at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston by the Astromaterials Research and Exploration Science Division (ARES), which stores NASA's collection of space samples. The work is being carried out by Apollo's Next Generation Sample Analysis Program (ANGSA), with the help of its partners 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 Artemis," said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

"Artemis aims to bring back cold and sealed samples from near the lunar South Pole," Zurbuchen continued. "This is an exciting learning opportunity to understand the tools needed for collecting and transporting these samples, for analyzing them, and for storing them on Earth for future generations of scientists."

The "Apollo can opener"

NASA kept several of the lunar samples collected by the Apollo missions unopened, knowing that science and technology would evolve, allowing future teams to gain greater insight when they opened their containers.

The container that is being opened now holds sample ANGSA 73001 in a sealed tube that has been carefully stored in a protective outer vacuum tube and in an atmosphere-controlled environment at the Johnson Space Center. In December, we reported that the European Space Agency's state-of-the-art "Apollo can opener" machine will be used to extract the materials from the container. The team behind the sample analysis will pierce the vacuum seal and slowly gather any gases inside via a weeks-long process. They will then remove the rocks and soil at some point later this spring.

In September last year, 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. Before that happens, NASA has its sights set on sending humans back to the Moon, and sample analysis from these Apollo containers will help to guide these future missions, which will collect more samples for future generations of scientists to unseal. 

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