Those remnants of the Apollo are about to see daylight—figuratively speaking—for the first time in 50 years. On Monday, during a speech about the White House’s proposed 2020 budget, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine announced that the agency would release three samples of lunar rock to nine different U.S. research institutes, where they’ll undergo their first laboratory study and analysis. Those findings could give us a more robust picture of the lunar geology and how its evolved over billions of years, and perhaps even give us some insight into what we ought to be on the lookout for when we finally return to the moon in the next decade.
“When the previous generations did Apollo, they knew the technology they had in that day was not the technology we would have in this day,” Bridenstine told the audience at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. “So they made a determination that they would preserve samples…I’d like to thank, if it’s okay, the Apollo generation, for preserving these samples, so that our generation could have this opportunity.”
We only have a finite amount of lunar samples to give out for study here on Earth, and NASA has always been wary of being too generous. But the agency’s renewed push to return to the moon raises hopes we’ll soon have a lot more material to work with. “There are more lunar samples on the horizon, where we’re going to be able to learn more than we’ve ever learned about the moon before,” said Bridenstine.
The samples were all collected during the Apollo 15, 16, and 17 missions. None of them have ever been exposed to Earth’s atmosphere, but they’ve been preserved in very different ways. For example, one Apollo 17 sample, returned to Earth in 1972, is 1.8 pounds of a vacuum-sealed lunar core that contains a stratified layer of rock, and will be studied by six of the nine chosen research teams. Meanwhile, another team will have access to an Apollo 15 sample that’s been stored in helium since 1971. Some samples from the missions have been kept frozen since they were brought back to Earth, while others have remained sealed in room-temperature storage.
“I think this is an amazing time for NASA to have made these new samples available,” says Kate Burgess, a researcher with the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, who will lead a team to study frozen samples as well as the helium-preserved samples to observe the effects of “space weathering”—the interaction of the space environment with an airless body like the moon. “There have been major advances in a lot of the techniques and instrumentation used in sample analysis in the past 10 or 15 years that have now matured enough to provide reliable and trustworthy data.”
The two biggest processes involved in space weathering are irradiation due to solar winds (which can cause hydrogen and helium to become trapped within the outermost surfaces of the moon), and the impacts of micrometeorites. These kinds of processes can dramatically affect the surface layers of the moon…[ ]