For the first time in nearly 50 years, researchers will get the chance to study lunar samples returned by the last three Apollo missions to land men on the moon.
Among those researchers is Jessica Barnes, who will join the University of Arizona as an assistant professor at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory in the fall. She is now a postdoctoral fellow at NASA’s Johnson Space Center.
“This is the first time this has been done since the samples were returned, so it’s an amazing opportunity,” Barnes said. “Especially for someone who wasn’t even born when the Apollo missions happened, it’s like I get to be a part of the legacy.”
July 20 is the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, the first time humans stepped onto the lunar surface.
NASA’s Apollo Next Generation Sample Analysis Program opens samples from the 1971-1972 Apollo missions 15 through 17 to modern research with the hope of improving future lunar missions, said Tom Zega, an associate professor at the LPL.
Several teams of scientists around the country will have the chance to study the samples.
“NASA had the foresight back in the late ‘60s, early ‘70s when the Apollo missions were bringing back lunar samples to cold-curate and vacuum-seal some of these materials to preserve them for future generations,” said Zega, the scientific director at the Kuiper Materials Imaging and Characterization Facility, and a member of the sample team. “There’s a new generation of scientists who now get the opportunity to look at these materials and bring to bear on them some of the most sophisticated instruments and analysis techniques on the planet.”
Barnes, who specializes in measuring the small amounts of water found in moon rocks, is seeking to answer several questions with the samples, including the effect freezing has on a sample. Of the four samples her team has been allocated from the Apollo 17 mission, the last to land men on the moon, one sample was preserved by freezing, which is an uncommon method, Barnes said.
“We’ll be looking at samples that were prepared a long time ago versus newly prepared samples and we’ll be preparing them in slightly different ways, too, to more fully address what happens when you store these samples under different conditions, what happens when you prepare them under different conditions,” she said.
The team will also use the samples to examine the moon’s geological history. Barnes said she’s not sure when the team will be able to start working on the samples. All teams in the program first have to have a planning meeting in May to determine the order in which the samples will be opened.
NASA is opening “frozen samples, they’re opening helium-stored samples and they’re opening a sample that’s been vacuumed-sealed for 50 years, and they only have one team of processors in curation who can open the samples,” Barnes said. “That means there has to be some kind of strategy and timeline for opening samples that require different techniques to open.”
Zega said understanding the origin of the moon has historically been a focus for the LPL, meaning Barnes’ proposal fits right in.
“Jessica’s proposal is innovative, it’s timely, there’s some interesting things we hope to be able to do with these samples, among them be able to measure for what we refer to as volatile elements that are trapped inside the lunar rocks, things like oxygen, hydrogen and other elements,” Zega said. “Having some kind of knowledge on that will help us better understand the origins of these materials.”
One of the missions the project hopes to help inform, according to Barnes, is OSIRIS-REx, the UA-led effort to return a sample from the asteroid Bennu. The spacecraft OSIRIS-REx is to collect a sample from Bennu in July 2020, then return it to Earth in 2023.
“Being able to characterize the effects of long-time duration on volatiles like water in samples is going to be really important for how we deal with OSIRIS-REx samples as a community, how we handle them, how we curate them and store them long-term,” Barnes said. “I’m hoping that this study will at least provide some answers that will be useful toward OSIRIS-REx sample return.”
As the samples have not been opened for nearly 50 years, Zega said it’s hard to tell what the moon material will be like, but said the analytical facility in the Kuiper Space Sciences building is world-class and the team has years of expertise working with samples.
“Each one of these samples is highly unique,” Zega said. “We don’t know what we’re necessarily going to find before we start looking at them, and once we start doing the work, we often find new things that lead to new questions … that’s the fun part. That’s why we all do research.”
Barnes is the principal investigator of the team, which includes Zega; Jeremy Boyce and Scott Messenger at NASA’s Johnson Space Center; Jed Mosenfelder of the University of Minnesota; Carolyn Crow of the University of Colorado, Boulder; and Maryjo Brounce of the University of California, Riverside.