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moon rock sample science museum

Nasa opens Moon rock collection for scientific study

Image credit: Dreamstime

Nasa has announced it’s opening its vaults containing Moon rock and dirt to let US-based research teams get samples for scientific study.

Nine US research teams will get a sliver of lunar loot to examine from Nasa’s total collection of 842lb.

While next month marks the 50th anniversary of the first Apollo Moon landing, sample curator Ryan Zeigler says the timing is merely a coincidence.

But lunar interest has been growing in recent years, plans are afoot to put humans back on the Moon as a potential jumping off point for a proposed Mars trip.

Last year Nasa said it was planning to send robot explorers to the surface first before the human-led trip.

The hundreds of pounds of Moon rocks were collected during the 12 Moon walks between 1969 and 1972.

Of these the 1969 Apollo 11 mission actually yielded the fewest lunar samples, just 48lb, as it was the first landing by astronauts and Nasa wanted to minimise their on-the-Moon time and risk.

“It’s sort of a coincidence that we’re opening them in the year of the anniversary,” Zeigler said

“But certainly the anniversary increased the awareness and the fact that we’re going back to the Moon.”

Some of the soil and rock samples were vacuum-packed on the Moon – and have never been exposed to Earth’s atmosphere – or were frozen or stored in gaseous helium on returning to Earth, and then left untouched.

The lab’s staff are trying to figure out how best to remove the samples from their tubes and other containers without contaminating or spoiling anything. They are practising with mock-up equipment and pretend lunar dirt.

Compared with Apollo-era tech, today’s science instruments are much more sensitive, Zeigler noted.

“We can do more with a milligram than we could do with a gram back then. So it was really good planning on their part to wait,” he said.

The lunar sample lab has two side-by-side vaults: one for rocks still in straight-from-the-Moon condition and a smaller vault for samples previously loaned out for study.

About 70 per cent of the original haul is in the pristine sample vault, which has two combinations and takes two people to unlock. About 15 per cent is in safekeeping at White Sands in New Mexico. The rest is used for research or display.

The lab’s collection is divided by mission, with each lunar landing getting its own cabinet with built-in gloves and stacks of stainless steel bins filled with pieces of the Moon. Apollo 16 and 17, responsible for half the lunar haul, get two cabinets each.

The total Apollo inventory exceeds 100,000 samples. Some of the original 2,200 were broken into smaller pieces for study.

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