Ahead of the Artemis missions that will send humans back to the moon, scientists at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center received samples of the lunar surface that were preserved in a freezer at the agency’s Johnson Space Center in Houston since Apollo 17 astronauts returned them to Earth in December 1972.
The research is part of the space agency’s Apollo Next Generation Sample Analysis Program (ANGSA), which is an effort to study the samples returned from the Apollo Program in preparation for the Artemis missions to the Moon’s south pole.
The process of getting the samples from Johnson to researchers at Goddard is not simple. It began over four years ago when NASA’s Julie Mitchell and her Artemis curation team at Johnson began designing and retrofitting a facility to process the samples. They employed a new technique that could be applied to future lunar missions.
Samples were also sent to researchers at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley, the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, DC, and the University of Arizona, Tucson
“We started this in early 2018 and there’s been a lot of technical challenges that we’ve had to overcome to get to this point. This was seen as a practice run for preparing a facility for future cold sample processing. By doing this work we’re not just facilitating Artemis exploration, but we’re facilitating future sample return and human exploration into the rest of the solar system,” said Mitchell, in a press statement.
After the facility was ready, Apollo sample curator Ryan Zeigler and his team had to adapt to the unique conditions designed by Mitchell’s team to keep the samples frozen during processing. These included decreased visibility due to frost and challenges manipulating the sample while working with thick gloves in a nitrogen-purged glove box. All of this took place inside a walk-in freezer maintained at minus 20 degrees celsius.
The ability to keep samples frozen will be important for Artemis as astronauts could potentially return ice samples from the Moon’s south pole. Once the frozen samples were processed and subdivided at Johnson by lunar sample processor Jeremy Kent, the samples were express shipped in a cooler with dry ice, opened at Goddard and stored in a secure freezer.
Jamie Elsila, a research scientist at the Astrobiology Analytical Laboratory at Goddard, is focusing on the study of small, volatile organic compounds during her research and analysis of the samples. Previous research has shown that some lunar samples contain amino acids, which are essential to life on earth.
Natalie Curran, principal investigator for the Mid Atlantic Noble Gas Research Lab at Goddard, will focus on understanding the history that the samples experienced during their lifetime on the moon. Unlike on earth, the Moon has a harsh environment that does not have an atmosphere to protect the surface from exposure to space.
Curran’s work will involve the use of noble gases like argon, helium, neon and xenon to measure the duration that the sample has been exposed to cosmic rays, which will help the researchers understand the history of the sample.
Elsila and Curran have both frozen and non-frozen samples in their possession. When the samples were brought to Earth, a portion was stored at room temperature and another portion was frozen so that the two groups can be compared. The researchers will analyze both groups to see if there are differences in organic content.
Understanding any variations that occur due to the different storage methods will help scientists make decisions about how to store samples returned by Artemis astronauts.