(CBS NEWS)- In December 1972, astronauts on the Apollo 17 lunar mission returned to Earth with samples of rock and soil from the moon. On Tuesday, NASA scientists opened a sample that had been sealed and untouched for more than 40 years.
The pristine sample of rock and regolith was opened on Tuesday at the Johnson Space Center in Houston as part of NASA’s Apollo Next-Generation Sample Analysis initiative (ANGSA), which is using advanced technology that was not yet available when the samples originally returned to Earth.
The tests will serve as practice for studying future samples collected on Artemis missions — NASA’s plan to land the first woman and next man on the moon by 2024.
“We are able to make measurements today that were just not possible during the years of the Apollo program,” Dr. Sarah Noble, ANGSA program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington, said in a press release. “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 samples returned to Earth from the have been stored and preserved for future generations. While most of them have already been studied, NASA has kept many in storage to be opened over time as technology continues to advance.
“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,” said Francis McCubbin, NASA’s astromaterials curator at Johnson. “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.”
The sample opened this week was collected by Apollo 17 astronauts Gene Cernan and Jack Schmitt, and a second sample collected by the duo is scheduled to be opened in January. Both will be studied using techniques such as non-destructive 3D imaging, mass spectrometry and ultra-high resolution microtomy.
“I grew up on the stories of Apollo, they inspired me to pursue a career in space and now I have an opportunity to contribute to the studies that are enabling the next missions to the Moon,” said Charis Krysher, a lunar sample processor who will be opening one of the samples. “To be the one to open a sample that hasn’t been opened since it was collected on the moon is such an honor and heavy responsibility, we’re touching history.”
Scientists hope that studying the unopened samples will provide insight into the origin of lunar polar ice deposits. They will also be better positioned to design tools for future lunar missions after understanding how well Apollo tools worked.
“The findings from these samples will provide NASA new insights into the Moon, including the history of impacts on the lunar surface, how landslides occur on the lunar surface, and how the Moon’s crust has evolved over time,” said Charles Shearer, science co-lead for ANGSA. “This research will help NASA better understand how volatile reservoirs develop, evolve and interact on the Moon and other planetary bodies.”
NASA plans to send new tools and technology to the moon with Artemis astronauts in 2024, with hopes of establishing a sustained presence by 2028. Those missions will lay a foundation for the next leap in space exploration — sending astronauts to Mars.