The seals containing the lunar samples are precious and are only opened in exceptional cases… such as the preparations for the Artemis mission.
In a few decades of exploration, American aerospace has collected a large number of scientific nuggets. But few are as glorious as the real treasure that lies behind the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. This state-of-the-art laboratory, designed as a real fortress, houses some of the most coveted scientific artifacts on the planet: the samples collected on the Moon during the Apollo missions.
Originally, these world scientific heritage totems were conditioned directly on the Moon, thanks to the vacuum of space. The objective: to avoid any contamination based on terrestrial material. Indeed, even a small trickle of oxygen would potentially be able to alter the sample; this would have the effect of compromising its integrity and, consequently, of ruining all scientific value. A real drama given their exceptional rarity.
For this reason, since being brought back by successive crews, these priceless pebbles still rest in the original void, as collected by Apollo crews. Each of them is stored under several layers of seals. They are kept in sterile, pressurized and controlled-atmosphere boxes, themselves installed in an ultra-secure room, access to which requires a very strict decontamination protocol.
A shock team at the service of the jewels of NASA
You will have understood: NASA does not mess with its “moonrocks”. She watches over these greyish jewels like the apple of her eye. There must therefore be an excellent reason to extract a sample from its metal case, and even the most renowned institutions must jostle to be entitled to a fragment. This is all the more true since on the main site in Texas (there are two other backup storages, including a top-secret one), the majority of the seals have already been opened.
On site, all manipulations are reserved for a group of hand-picked specialists; all come from prestigious laboratories, and selected for their sense of detail and their unfailing meticulousness. No question of entrusting such precious objects to second-rate manipulators.
Their role is usually to catalog, weigh, fragment, and condition lunar rocks. An already exciting job in normal times, and even more so now; indeed, the team of scientists recently had the privilege of opening one of the very last seals still untouched with the aim of preparing for the Artemis missions.
A relic untouched for half a century
In this case, it is a sample brought back by the crew of the Apollo 17 mission, the very last to take humans to the Moon in December 1972. It has therefore been almost 50 years since sample 73001 patiently bides its time in the cupboards of the Johnson Space Center.
It is one of the few elements still intact, and has remained untouched since its return to Earth. Indeed, NASA keeps some of these samples for very long periods of time. The goal is to reserve chunks in case new technology emerges; if necessary, this allows for more in-depth analyzes than was possible at the time. And that’s exactly what the agency hopes to achieve by unboxing the number 730001.
It will now be observed from every angle with great attention. The researchers are particularly interested in the rare gases present in the seal. Indeed, since this rock was sealed in the cold of space, the researchers estimate that so-called volatile compounds, that is to say compounds capable of evaporating at room temperature, could have been trapped in the sample.
This is not a harmful contamination, on the contrary; these gases are extremely interesting elements for researchers. If they manage to extract them, they can then submit them to the uncompromising eye of a modern mass spectrometer.
This technology which makes it possible to quantify the different molecules in a sample has progressed at lightning speed in recent years; it has now reached a staggering level of precision, and the researchers therefore hope that it will enable them to arrive at new, even more precise and conclusive results on lunar geology.
Preparing the ground for Artemis
But the research team will also have to temper its enthusiasm. Since the seal was broken on February 11, the team has barely had time to confirm the absence of other contaminants. It now remains to do the bulk of the work; they began to drill the sample. With a bit of luck, they will succeed in extracting a few molecules of gas trapped in the rock.
Again, this is an infinitely delicate manipulation; it must be carried out over several weeks in order to allow the instruments to do their job with complete peace of mind. They will then be able to draw up a complete catalog of the gases in the sample.
At this point, they will attack the last stage. It will be a question of recovering the solid mass of the sample, which will in turn be the subject of new extremely thorough analyses. But NASA has no intention of rushing. Moreover, it has not defined a precise date for this deadline. The press release simply reveals that this stage will begin “in the spring”.
All of these elements will help prepare the ground for future Artemis missions, which eventually plan to bring humans back to the Moon in 2026. They will help to define priorities once there, and possibly identify new interesting avenues of research. . Over the coming months, therefore, we may learn new information about the Moon from the original material, even though no human has walked the surface of the Moon for nearly half a century. Clearly, we can’t stop progress!