Apollo mission planners were really smart. Recognising that future scientists will have better tools and richer scientific insights, they refrained from opening a portion of the lunar samples returned from the historic Apollo missions. One of these sample containers, after sitting untouched for 50 years, is now set to be opened.
The sample in question was collected by Gene Cernan in 1972. The Apollo 17 astronaut was working in the Taurus-Littrow Valley when he hammered a 28-inch-long (70 cm) tube into the surface, which he did to collect samples of lunar soil and gas. The lower half of this canister was sealed while Cernan was still on the Moon. Back on Earth, the canister was placed in yet another vacuum chamber for good measure. Known as the 73001 Apollo sample container, it remains untouched to this very day.
But the time has come to open this vessel and investigate its precious cargo, according to a European Space Agency press release. The hope is that lunar gases might be present inside, specifically hydrogen, helium, and other light gases. Analysis of these gases could further our understanding of lunar geology and shed new light on how to best store future samples, whether they be gathered on asteroids, the Moon, or Mars.
Like I said, Apollo mission planners were really clever — but they didn’t exactly explain how future scientists were supposed to extract the presumed gases from the vacuum-sealed container. That task is now the responsibility of the Apollo Next Generation Sample Analysis Program (ANGSA), which manages these untouched treasures. In this case, ANGSA tasked the European Space Agency, among several other institutions, to figure out a way to safely release this trapped gas, marking the first time that ESA has been involved in the opening of samples returned from the Apollo program.
The task isn’t exactly straightforward. The extraction technique, in addition to piercing a hole into the container, must not introduce any contaminants. What’s more, the team had to work with 50-year-old documentation. In the press release, Timon Schild, leader of ESA’s Spaceship EAC team, said some “characteristics of the sample container were simply unknown,” and that “building the tool was a challenge.”
The ANGSA consortium spent the past 16 months working on the problem, and the solution, dubbed the “Apollo can opener,” is now ready to rock. The system has the sole purpose of puncturing the vacuum container, thereby releasing the gases. Freed from their confines, the gases will then enter into an extraction manifold developed by a partner group of researchers at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. The gases, should they exist, will then be distributed across multiple containers and sent to specialised labs around the world for analysis. The newly developed piercing tool, delivered to NASA’s Johnson Space Centre in Houston in November, will be used to open the 73001 Apollo sample container in the next few weeks, according to ESA.
“We are eager to learn how well the vacuum container preserved the sample and the fragile gases,” explained Francesca McDonald, science and project lead of ESA’s contribution to the ANGSA project. “Each gas component that is analysed can help to tell a different part of the story about the origin and evolution of volatiles on the Moon and within the early Solar System.”
Importantly, the ANGSA project serves an additional purpose. The lessons learned from this experiment will inform the development of future sample return containers and protocols for use in missions to retrieve surface samples from asteroids or frozen water from the Moon and Mars. These insights could come in handy during the upcoming VIPER mission to the Moon, in which the NASA rover will explore the western edge of Nobile Crater near the lunar south pole in hopes of detecting and collecting water-ice.
Editor’s Note: Release dates within this article are based in the U.S., but will be updated with local Australian dates as soon as we know more.