Lunar Samples Have Been in the Deep Freeze for 50 Years. NASA Finally has the Right Technology to Study Them Properly

Curators handling lunar rocks take extreme care to keep these materials from contamination as they work with them in cold boxes using gloves and protective gear. This frozen Apollo 17 sample is being studied in a nitrogen-purged glove box at NASA Johnson Space Flight Center. Courtesy NASA/Robert Markowitz.
Curators handling lunar rocks take extreme care to keep these materials from contamination as they work with them in cold boxes using gloves and protective gear. This frozen Apollo 17 sample is being studied in a nitrogen-purged glove box at NASA Johnson Space Flight Center. Courtesy NASA/Robert Markowitz.

Ever wonder what happened to all those collections of rocks and dust the Apollo astronauts brought back from the Moon? Some of those lunar samples were studied right away. Others made their way into a few museums and science centers and the desks of world leaders. Still others landed in storage at NASA Johnson’s Space Center in Houston. Some got stored at room temperature while others were put into a deep freeze. The idea was to preserve any traces of gases or water or possibly organic materials on them. Now, some of these lunar samples are at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, where they’re under examination for the first time in 50 years using new techniques not available during the Apollo years.

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50-Year-Old Lunar Samples are Opened up for the First Time

Sample collection on the surface of the Moon. Apollo 16 astronaut Charles M. Duke Jr. is shown collecting samples with the Lunar Roving Vehicle in the left background. Image: NASA

NASA’s Apollo missions to the Moon brought back about 382 kilograms (842 pounds) of samples, including rocks, rock cores, rock, pebbles, sand, and dust. Scientists have studied those samples intently over the decades and have learned a lot. But they haven’t studied all of the samples.

In an impressive act of foresight, NASA left some of the samples unopened and in pristine condition. Why? Because they knew the technology used to study the samples would only improve over the decades.

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Remembering NASA Engineer Jerry Woodfill, the Inspiration Behind “13 Things That Saved Apollo 13”

Jerry Woodfill, an engineer who worked diligently behind the scenes during NASA’s Apollo program, has passed away at age 79. Jerry was still employed by the Johnson Space Center (JSC) at the time of his death, working there for over 57 years. Most notably, Jerry worked as the lead engineer behind the Caution and Warning System on the Apollo spacecraft, which alerted astronauts to issues such as Apollo 11’s computer problems during the first Moon landing, and the explosion of Apollo 13’s oxygen tanks.

While continuing his work as an engineer at JSC, Jerry’s infectious enthusiasm for spaceflight led him to also be part of NASA’s public and educational outreach, where he spearheaded programs for children, teachers and adults about science and space flight. He routinely gave over 40 lectures a year, both in person and online to listeners around the world. His unique sense of humor and sometimes unabashed showmanship could hold even the shortest of young attention spans. Jerry usually had his audiences either in stitches or fully captivated by his stories.  

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Apollo 17 Astronauts Brought Home Samples From the Oldest Impact Crater on the Moon

Internal geological processes on the moon are almost non-existent.  However, when it gets smacked by a space rock, its surface can change dramatically.  Debris from that impact can also travel over large distances, transplanting material from one impact site hundreds of kilometers away, where it can remain untouched in its inert environment for billions of years.  

So when Apollo 17 astronauts took regolith samples at their landing site near Serenitatis Basin, they collected not only rocks from the basin itself, but from other impacts that had happened billions of years ago.  Differentiating material that actually formed part of the Basin from material that landed their after an impact has proven difficult.

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“Put LUCKY on My Tombstone.” Apollo 11 Astronaut Michael Collins Dies at 90

Donned in his space suit, Command Module (CM) pilot Michael Collins does a final check of his communications system before the boarding of the Apollo 11 mission. Credit: NASA

We bid a reluctant but truly fond farewell today to Michael Collins. The NASA astronaut passed away at the age of 90 on April 28, 2021. Collins flew on the historic Apollo 11 mission in 1969, and also on Gemini 10 in 1966.

As Command Module Pilot, Collins was the lone member of the Apollo 11 crew who remained in orbit while his fellow astronauts became the first to land and walk on the Moon. But his endearing nature means he will be most remembered for his wit and humor, his passion and humbleness, his unflappable demeanor, his thoughtful contemplations, and the inspiring words he left behind as a writer of several books.

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Remembering NASA Flight Director Glynn Lunney, 1936-2021

Glynn S. Lunney at his console in the MCC during an Apollo simulation exercise in Mission Control at the Manned Spacecraft Center. Credit: NASA.

Legendary NASA flight director Glynn Lunney has passed away at age 84. Lunney played a key role in the early days of NASA, helping to create the concept and operation of what we now reverently know as Mission Control. His calm decisiveness was lauded during the Gemini and Apollo missions he guided as flight director, and his leadership was especially pivotal in bringing the crew of Apollo 13 safely back to Earth.

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Is There An Apollo 14 Moon Tree Near You?

A plaque from the original Moon Tree planted in Washington Square in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA. Image by Nancy Atkinson.

50 years ago this week, the Apollo 14 crew flew their mission to the Moon. Alan Shepard and Edgar Mitchell were the third pair of astronauts to walk on the lunar surface. They conducted two moonwalks in the Fra Mauro highlands, collecting rocks and setting up science experiments, as well as broadcasting the first color TV images from the Moon.

Meanwhile, Stuart Roosa remained in orbit as the Command Module pilot. But Roosa wasn’t alone while circling above the Moon.  

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That’s no Asteroid, it’s a Rocket Booster

Earthrise as photographed by the Apollo 10 crew in May 1969. Credit: NASA

Back in September, astronomers using the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System 1 (Pan-STARRS1) noticed an object in a distant orbit around Earth. Initially, the object (designed 2020 SO) was thought that be a near-Earth Asteroid (NEA). But based on the curious nature of it’s and the way solar radiation appeared to be pushing it off course, NASA scientists theorized that 2020 SO might be a spent rocket booster.

This was the tentative conclusion reached by staffers at the NASA Center for Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS) at NASA JPL. Specifically, they theorized that the object was the spent upper stage booster of the Centaur rocket that launched the Surveyor 2 spacecraft towards the Moon in 1966. This theory has since been confirmed thanks to new information provided by CNEOS and the NASA Infrared Telescope Facility (IRTF).

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Lunar Dust is Still One of The Biggest Challenges Facing Moon Exploration

Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison Schmitt collecting a soil sample, his spacesuit coated with dust. Credit: NASA

In the coming years, astronauts will be returning to the Moon for the first time since the closing of the Apollo Era. Beyond that, NASA and other space agencies plan to establish the necessary infrastructure to maintain a human presence there. This will include the Artemis Gateway in orbit (formerly the Lunar Gateway) and bases on the surface, like NASA’s Artemis Base Camp and the ESA’s International Moon Village.

This presents a number of challenges. The Moon is an airless body, it experiences extreme variations in temperature, and its surface is exposed to far more radiation than we experience here on Earth. On top of that, there’s the lunar dust (aka. regolith), a fine powder that sticks to everything. To address this particular problem, a team of ESA-led researchers is developing materials that will provide better protection for lunar explorers.

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What the Astronauts Saw as They Orbited the Moon During Apollo 17

The crescent Earth rises above the lunar horizon in this spectacular photograph taken by the Apollo 17 crew in lunar orbit in December, 1972, during NASA’s final lunar landing mission in the Apollo program. Credit: NASA. Image editing and enhancement: Kevin Gill.

This view always gets me *right there.* But this new version really gets me.

This is what Apollo 17 astronauts saw in December of 1972 as they came around the farside of the Moon: the blue and white crescent Earth rising above the stark lunar horizon. And now image editing guru Kevin Gill has sharpened the image, giving it more texture, color and contrast. I can imagine this sharp, spectacular view must be close to what the astronauts saw with their own eyes.  

“There I was, and there you are, the Earth – dynamic, overwhelming…” said Apollo 17 astronaut Gene Cernan.  

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