NASA Just Opened a Moon Rock Sample Which Has Been Untouched Since Apollo Era More Than 40 Years Ago

NASA scientists have just opened a sample of moon rock and soil which has remained untouched for more than 40 years since being collected by the crew of Apollo 17.

Astronauts Gene Cernan and Jack Schmitt gathered the sample from the lunar surface in December, 1972 using a 1.5-inch-wide "drive" tube during Apollo 17—which is notable for being the last mission to take humans beyond low-Earth orbit.

On November 5, 2019 the tube was finally opened in the Lunar Curation Laboratory at NASA's Johnson Space Center as part of the space agency's Apollo Next-Generation Sample Analysis (ANGSA) project, which is using new state-of-the-art technologies to investigate samples from the Apollo era.

This marks the first time in over four decades that researchers have gained access to a pristine regolith sample—dust, broken rock, soil, and other materials which cover rocky worlds—collected by the Apollo missions.

NASA says that analyzing old lunar samples with new technology will serve as good preparation for when future astronauts bring back material from the moon as part of the space agency's planned Artemis program.

Artemis intends to land the "first woman and next man" on the lunar surface by 2024 with a long-term goal of establishing a sustainable presence on the moon. The space agency hopes that these missions will lay the necessary groundwork for future manned missions to Mars.

"We are able to make measurements today that were just not possible during the years of the Apollo program," Sarah Noble, ANGSA program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington, said in a statement. "The analysis of these samples will maximize the science return from Apollo, as well as enable a new generation of scientists and curators to refine their techniques and help prepare future explorers for lunar missions anticipated in the 2020s and beyond."

All of the moon samples collected during the Apollo era were stored in the Lunar Sample Laboratory Facility at the Johnson Space Center—which houses around 842 pounds of lunar material.

NASA, moon rocks
Pictured from left: Apollo sample processors Andrea Mosie, Charis Krysher and Juliane Gross open lunar sample 73002 at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston. The Moon rocks inside this tube have remained untouched since they were collected on the surface and brought to Earth by Apollo astronauts nearly 50 years ago. NASA/James Blair

Scientists have had the chance to study many of the samples, however, the space agency took the decision to keep some—collected during Apollo 15, 16 and 17—off limits so that future generations could analyze them untouched with more advanced technology.

The sample opened on November 5, known as 73002, was collected from a landslide deposit near the Lara Crater on the moon. Its contents will now be analysed over the next few months using a variety of advanced techniques such as 3D-imaging and mass spectrometry. NASA says that scientists will also open another sample, 73001, collected from the same site in January.

"Opening these samples now will enable new scientific discoveries about the Moon and will allow a new generation of scientists to refine their techniques to better study future samples returned by Artemis astronauts," Francis McCubbin, NASA's astromaterials curator at Johnson, said in a statement. "Our scientific technologies have vastly improved in the past 50 years and scientists have an opportunity to analyze these samples in ways not previously possible."