Scientists begin studying 50-year-old frozen samples from Apollo 17

(ORDO NEWS) — Scientists at NASA‘s Goddard Space Flight Center in the US recently obtained samples of the lunar surface that had been stored in a freezer at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston since the astronauts of the Apollo 17 mission returned them to Earth in December 1972.

The study is part of the Apollo Next Generation Sample Analysis (ANGSA) program to study samples returned by the Apollo program ahead of the upcoming Artemis mission to the South Pole.

However, the process of transferring samples from Johnson to researchers at Goddard, as well as researchers at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley, the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, and the University of Arizona at Tucson, was not easy.

This process began more than four years ago when NASA’s Julie Mitchell and her team of Artemis curators at Johnson began designing and refurbishing the Apollo 17 frozen sample processing facility. It was a new approach, and the scientists were excited to use a technique that could be applied to future lunar missions.

“We started this work in early 2018 and there were a lot of technical challenges we had to overcome to get to this point,” Mitchell said. “This was seen as a drill to prepare the facility for future processing of cold samples.”

“By doing this work, we are not only facilitating exploration for the future Artemis mission, but also facilitating sample return and human exploration of the rest of the solar system in the future,” Mitchell added. “I feel drawn to do my small part by developing ways to collect these materials, bring them home safely, and store them long-term.”

Once the facility was ready, Ryan Zeigler, Apollo Sample Curator at Astromaterials and Science Research (ARES) in Johnson, and his team had to adapt to the unique conditions created by Mitchell’s team to keep the samples frozen during preparation.

These included reduced visibility due to frost and difficulty handling samples when working with thick gloves in a nitrogen glovebox, all inside a freezer at -20 C. The ability to keep samples frozen will be important to the mission. Artemis, as astronauts will be able to bring back new ice samples from the Moon‘s South Pole.

“Everything we do is about logistics and infrastructure, but adding cold makes it a lot more difficult,” Zeigler said. This is an important lesson for the Artemis mission, as the ability to process samples in the cold will be more important for the Artemis mission than for Apollo. This work gives us lessons and a good start for Artemis.”

After the frozen samples were processed and disassembled at Johnson by lunar sample processor Jeremy Kent, they were sent in a dry ice refrigerator, immediately opened at Goddard and placed in a secure For the scientists who are now working with these treasures, there is something special about obtaining samples that have not been explored for almost five decades.

Jamie Elsila, a researcher at the Astrobiology Analytical Laboratory at Goddard, focused her research on small volatile organic compounds. Previous research has shown that some lunar samples contain amino acids that are essential for life on Earth. Her team wants to understand their origin and distribution in the solar system.

“We think that some of the amino acids in lunar soils could have come from precursor molecules, which are smaller, more volatile compounds like formaldehyde or hydrogen cyanide,” says Elsila.

“The goal of our study is to identify and quantify these small organic volatile compounds, as well as any amino acids, and use the findings to understand the Moon’s prebiotic organic chemistry.”

Natalie Curran, principal investigator at the Mid-Atlantic Noble Gas Laboratory at Goddard, has focused on understanding the history the specimens may have experienced during their life on the Moon. The surface of the Moon is a harsh environment, but unlike the Earth, it does not have an atmosphere that would protect it from the effects of outer space.

“Our work allows us to use inert gases such as argon, helium, neon and xenon to measure the duration of exposure to cosmic rays on a sample, which can help us understand the history of this sample,” says Curran.

“Cosmic rays can damage organic materials that may be in the sample, so understanding the duration helps determine what effect the exposure had on the organics.”

Both Elsila and Curran have both frozen and unfrozen lunar samples in their possession. When these samples were brought to Earth, some of them were stored at room temperature, while the other part was frozen, which allows comparison of the two groups.

The scientists will analyze both sets of samples to see if there are differences in organic matter content. Understanding any differences caused by different storage methods can help guide future decisions about how to store samples returned by Artemis astronauts, which is part of what the ARES team at Johnson will be doing.

For Elsila, “it’s great to think about the work that’s been done to collect samples on the Moon and then all the thoughtfulness and care taken to preserve them so that we can analyze them now,” she said.

“When you think about how these samples came from another world, how far they traveled and what kind of history of the solar system is preserved in them, it’s always amazing,” Curran added.


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