Apollo Moon Sample Sealed for 45 Years Should be Investigated Soon, Says NASA

It's been almost half a century since humans last set foot on the Moon—but in all that time, we still haven't unwrapped all the souvenirs astronauts brought us from their lunar excursions. Now, scientists say, it may be time to change that.

The Apollo missions brought home nine boxes full of Moon rock and dust, and those materials have been scientifically priceless ever since. But researchers have been careful to dole them out, keeping three of the nine containers unopened, according to Space.com.

NASA personnel unload the sample return container from Apollo 11 in 1969. NASA

That decision wasn't governed by laziness or a lack of curiosity—it was to maximize the value of the samples, saving some for when scientists had invented better tools to study them. "Samples were intentionally saved for a time when technology and instrumentation had advanced to the point that we could maximize the scientific return on these unique samples," Ryan Zeigler, Apollo sample curator and manager of the Astromaterials Acquisition and Curation Office in Houston, told Space.com.

There are two compelling reasons to open up one of those precious containers soon. The first, of course, is that there's plenty of new technology to analyze them. But the second is that President Trump has directed NASA to work on putting humans back on the Moon.

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The sealed samples are particularly valuable because scientists are interested in what they call volatiles within the moon rock, or regolith. Those volatiles float away soon after the container is opened. There's a chance the seals have weakened over the decades, but until we get back to the moon, the three sealed containers are our only option right now for studying the volatiles.

And Zeigler and a colleague say that opening one of those containers now would be worth it. That's because better understanding the volatiles, which includes chemicals like water, could help NASA plan the missions that could in the long run result in new samples coming back to Earth.