The Apollo missions of the 1960s and ’70s were large collectors of space rocks, bringing back 382 kilograms of rock, debris and dirt and splitting them into 2196 samples. Those models have been on Earth for about five decades now, but they are not all open. A few sample tubes in the future model were sealed for inspection. Francis McCabe, astronomer observer at the Johnson Space Center in Texas and co-chair of the Apollo Next Generation Model Analysis Program (ANGSA), says many scientists now studying lunar rocks are not even born when the models return.
As part of the ANGSA, researchers have now opened six samples from Apollo 15 and Apollo 17 passengers that have been frozen or stored under vacuum since they were collected. They want to know about the moon’s turbulent gases, which they believe are based on curation techniques and the historical geological processes that shaped the Earth’s satellite. Since this will inform the design of the sample collection protocols for NASA’s upcoming Artemis mission, the biggest focus is on understanding how well the curation techniques worked.
Joe Wilbur, a graduate student at the University of Arizona, is part of a mission to evaluate Apollo’s freezing technique. Wilbur plans to compare a frozen model from the same rock that has been at room temperature for the past 50 years. He believes there is new information to share in the frozen model. But he notes, “Even if we find no difference, it’s still an interesting result.”
Wilbur is excited about being part of an effort to send humans back to the moon and the secrets they can reveal while they are there. “I don’t think people will ever walk on the moon again in my life,” he says. “It’s almost surreal.”