An astronaut from the Apollo 17 mission while collecting lunar samples in containers. Credit: ESA/NASA

Researchers to Open Sealed Apollo 17 Container Brought Back From the Moon

Nearly 50 years after the last Moon landing, researchers from ESA intend to open an untouched container full of lunar samples, which is to be studied with the latest tools and technologies.

Studying the surface of the Moon

For a long time, scientists had little idea what the surface of the moon looked like. If you look at it through binoculars or even just with the naked eye, you will see that it is not uniform. Part of the disk will be uneven and light, and part of it will be smoother and darker, somewhat reminiscent of terrestrial seas. Several centuries ago, astronomers also thought so, and seriously assumed that there are not only continents and oceans on the moon, but, possibly, living organisms.

The Apollo program played the most significant role in the study of the satellite’s surface. On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin made the first-ever landing on the lunar surface, during which they collected 21.5 kilograms of soil and brought them to Earth.

Sample 73002 from the Apollo 17 landing. The second section from the double drive tube core is to be opened soon. Credit: ESA–Francesca McDonald
Sample 73002 from the Apollo 17 landing. The second section from the double drive tube core is to be opened soon. Credit: ESA–Francesca McDonald

Subsequent expeditions of the Apollo program increased this stock by more than 300 kilograms. In addition, 326 grams of regolith were collected by the Soviet automatic apparatus of the Luna series. It is thanks to these tests that we know everything that we know today. But there is more to be discovered today as ESA plans to open one of the last containers with lunar soil collected during the last moon landing in 1972.

What does the lunar soil look like and what is its chemical composition?

The lunar surface is composed of rocks, debris, and dust. Its upper layer is covered with regolith – loose clastic-dusty material, the thickness of which reaches several tens of meters. Regolith particles are on average 60 to 80 micrometers in size – these are dust grains as thick as human hair.

The Apollo data showed that the lunar seas are ancient volcanic rocks, basalts, crystallized over 3.6 billion years ago. Lighter “continents” mainly consist of anorthosites and their varieties. Regolith of both types is characterized by the presence of metallic iron particles, and it is also very dry compared to the Earth’s soil.

Astronaut Gene Cernan collecting lunar samples in 1972. Credit: ESA
Astronaut Gene Cernan collecting lunar samples in 1972. Credit: NASA

There is no oxide film on the grains of the soil, and because of this, particles stick together and become electrified. In addition, the regolith rises well from impacts. By the way, this caused a lot of inconvenience to the astronauts, since the grains were constantly sticking to the spacesuits.

If we speak about the chemical composition, it consists of oxygen (40-45 percent), silicon, aluminum, calcium, iron, magnesium, and titanium. The remaining percentage falls on manganese, potassium, sodium, phosphorus. The minerals found in the lunar soil include igneous rocks, gabbro and norite, and heavy ore metals, including ilmenite (titanium iron ore), olivine and silicate rocks.

ESA will open an untouched container with lunar soil from the last Moon landing

Scientists were incredibly smart to leave a container closed for decades. In this way, researchers can now study the untouched samples with the most advanced technologies of the 21st century.

New soil research is important not only to close the “blank spot” in the history of the Moon but also to solve pragmatic problems. Today we are at a new stage of the lunar race, and this time its goal is not only to prove that we are able to fly to the satellite, but also to prepare humanity for the colonization of other celestial bodies.

Since the Moon is closer than Mars, it will become the main testing ground for technology development – and then a staging post on the road to Mars.

ESA's tool for opening the container with lunar samples from the last Moon Landing. Credit: ESA
ESA’s tool for opening the container with lunar samples from the last Moon Landing. Credit: ESA

This will be the first time ESA will be involved in opening a lunar container. The agency has developed a special “piercing tool” that will be used to open the capsule and capture any loosely bound gasses that might still be trapped inside. At least, that is what experts expect to find besides the soil samples.

The instrument was developed over a year and a half of work by several of ESA’s teams around the world. Since the container is almost 50 years old, scientists faced difficulties in understanding some of its characteristics. Overall, building the tool was a serious challenge. But what will scientists find in the last container from the 1977 Moon landing?

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Dvorsky, G. (2021, December 17). Vacuum-sealed container from 1972 moon landing will finally be opened. Gizmodo.
ESA. (n.d.). Opening a 50-year-old Christmas present from the Moon.
Hood, A. L. (2021, December 18). Scientists opening sealed container from final moon landing. Futurism.
O’Neill, M. (2021, December 19). Opening a 50-year-old Christmas present from the Moon – using a custom-built “Apollo can opener”. SciTechDaily.

Written by Vladislav Tchakarov

Hello, my name is Vladislav and I am glad to have you here on Curiosmos. As a history student, I have a strong passion for history and science, and the opportunity to research and write in this field on a daily basis is a dream come true.

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