AMU Editor's Pick Original Space

Many Apollo Moon Rocks to Be Studied for the First Time

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By Wes O’Donnell, Managing Editor,

Fifty years ago, NASA astronauts began bringing back to Earth a small mountain of moon rocks and soil (known as regolith) for scientists to experiment on. By the time of the Apollo 17 mission in 1972, the last time man walked on the moon, the U.S. had a collection of 842 pounds of moon rocks. Most of them have never been touched by human hands, until now.

As we approach the 50th anniversary of humanity’s stunning achievement of landing a man on the moon, NASA has selected nine teams to study samples from Apollo missions 15, 16 and 17, which have never been exposed to Earth’s atmosphere.

A total of $8 million has been awarded to the teams for research. They include:

NASA Ames Research Center/Bay Area Environmental Research Institute: A team led by Alexander Sehlke will complete an experiment started 50 years ago by studying the frozen lunar samples from Apollo 17 to see how volatile elements like water are stored in the radiation environment of the lunar surface, which is not protected by an atmosphere like Earth’s.

NASA Ames – A team led by David Blake and Richard Walroth will study the vacuum-sealed sample for “space weathering” or how exposure to the space environment affects the moon’s surface.

NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center: A team led by Jamie Elsila Cook will study the vacuum-sealed sample to better understand how small organic molecules—namely, precursors to amino acids—are preserved on the moon.

NASA Goddard: A team led by Barbara Cohen and Natalie Curran will study the vacuum-sealed sample to investigate the geologic history of the Apollo 17 site. They’ll specifically be looking at the abundance of noble gases (helium, neon, argon, krypton, xenon, and radon) in the sample, which can tell them about the sample’s age.

University of Arizona: A team led by Jessica Barnes will study how curation affects the amount of hydrogen-bearing minerals in the lunar soil. That will help us better understand how water is locked in minerals on the moon.

University of California Berkeley: A team led by Kees Welten will study how micrometeorite and meteorite strikes may have affected the geology of the lunar surface.

U.S. Naval Research Laboratory. A team led by Katherine Burgess will look at the frozen samples and the samples stored in helium to study how airless bodies are affected by exposure to the space environment.

University of New Mexico: A team led by Chip Shearer will look at the vacuum-sealed sample to study the geologic history of the Apollo 17 site. They will be studying samples from a region that was cold enough for water to freeze volatiles, chemical elements and compounds with low boiling points associated with the lunar crust or atmosphere. They are called “cold traps.” This will be the first time a sample from one of these cold traps will be examined in the lab.

Mount Holyoke College/Planetary Science Institute: A team led by Darby Dyar will look at both the vacuum-sealed samples and samples stored in helium to study volcanic activity on the moon. They’ll specifically look at tiny glass beads that rapidly formed during an ancient lunar eruption.

Scientists So Far Have Studied Only about 16 Percent of the Apollo Samples

Until now, scientists have studied only about 16% of the Apollo samples. It appears that NASA has been purposely preserving regolith samples for future generations of scientists to examine and perhaps give today’s scientific instruments time to advance in precision.

Culturally, preserving moon rocks for future generations speaks to the uncertainty about our return to the moon after Apollo. On December 11, 1972, Apollo 17 became not only our last Moon landing, but also the last time humans left low Earth orbit.

Fortunately, Space Policy Directive-1 of December 11, 2017, precisely 45 years after the Apollo 17 mission, builds on NASA’s years of experience and directs a U.S.-led, human mission back to the moon, Mars and beyond.

This is an exciting time to be involved in space science. And we owe it to the men and women of Apollo, both our now-famous astronauts and the thousands of support personnel who contributed to the greatest technical achievement in history.

In addition, advances in scientific measurement will ensure that the nine teams chosen to examine Apollo lunar samples yield new discoveries about the physical and chemical makeup of Earth’s beloved companion.

Get started on your Space Studies Degree at American Military University.

Wes O’Donnell is an Army and Air Force veteran and writer covering military and tech topics. As a sought-after professional speaker, Wes has presented at U.S. Air Force Academy, Fortune 500 companies, and TEDx, covering trending topics from data visualization to leadership and veterans’ advocacy. As a filmmaker, he directed the award-winning short film, “Memorial Day.”

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