NASA Goddard Scientists Begin Studying 50-year-old Frozen Apollo 17 Samples


Scientists at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, recently received samples of the lunar surface that have been curated in a freezer at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston since Apollo 17 astronauts returned them to Earth in December 1972.

This research is part of the Apollo Next Generation Sample Analysis Program, or ANGSA, an effort to study the samples returned from the Apollo Program in advance of the upcoming Artemis missions to the Moon’s South Pole.

Scientists at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, recently received samples of the lunar surface that have been curated in a freezer at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston since Apollo 17 astronauts returned them to Earth in December 1972.Credits: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight CenterDownload video

However, the process of getting the samples from Johnson to researchers at Goddard – as well as researchers at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley, the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C., and the University of Arizona, Tucson – wasn’t simple. It’s a process that began more than four years ago when NASA’s Julie Mitchell and her Artemis curation team at Johnson began designing and retrofitting a facility to process the frozen Apollo 17 samples. This was a new approach and scientists were excited to employ a technique that could be applied to future lunar missions.

Cold Sample Processing of Apollo 17 Sample 71036. Photo Date: March 2, 2022. Location: Building 31, Experimental Impact Lab walk in -20oC freezer. Photographer: Robert Markowitz

A frozen Apollo 17 sample being processed inside a nitrogen-purged glove box at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. The sample is one of many being studied as part of the ANGSA program.Credits: NASA/Robert Markowitz

“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,” said Mitchell. “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,” Mitchell added. “I feel very privileged to contribute in this small way by developing the capabilities for us to collect these materials, bring them home safely, and curate them for the long term.”

Once the facility was ready, Ryan Zeigler, Apollo sample curator in the Astromaterials Research and Exploration Science (ARES) Division at Johnson, and his team had to adapt to the unique conditions designed by Mitchell’s team to keep the samples frozen during processing, which included decreased visibility due to frost and challenges manipulating the samples while working with thick gloves in a nitrogen-purged glove box, all of which took place inside a walk-in freezer maintained at minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 20 C). Being able to keep samples frozen will be important for Artemis as astronauts potentially return ice samples from the Moon’s South Pole.

“Everything we do involves a lot of logistics and a lot of infrastructure, but adding the cold makes it a lot harder,” said Zeigler. “It’s an important learning lesson for Artemis, as being able to process samples in the cold will be even more important for the Artemis mission than it is for Apollo. This work gives us some lessons learned and a good feed forward for Artemis.”

Once the frozen samples were processed and subdivided at Johnson by lunar sample processor Jeremy Kent, the samples were then express shipped in a cooler with dry ice, immediately opened at Goddard, and stored in a secure freezer. For the scientists now working with the treasures, there’s something special about receiving samples that haven’t been investigated in nearly five decades.

Cold Sample Processing of Apollo 17 Sample 71036. Photo Date: March 2, 2022. Location: Building 31, Experimental Impact Lab walk in -20oC freezer. Photographer: Robert Markowitz

Jamie Elsila, a research scientist in the Astrobiology Analytical Laboratory at Goddard, is focusing on the study of small, volatile organic compounds for her research and analysis of the sample. Previous research showed that some lunar samples contain amino acids, which are essential to life on Earth. Her team wants to understand their origin and distribution in the solar system.  

“We think some of the amino acids in the lunar soils may have formed from precursor molecules, which are smaller, more volatile compounds such as formaldehyde or hydrogen cyanide,” said Elsila. “Our research goal is to identify and quantify these small organic volatile compounds, as well as any amino acids, and to use the data to understand the prebiotic organic chemistry of the Moon.”

Natalie Curran, principal investigator for the Mid Atlantic Noble Gas Research Lab at Goddard, focuses on understanding the history that the samples may have experienced during their lifetime on the Moon. The surface of the Moon is a harsh environment and unlike the Earth, it doesn’t have an atmosphere to protect it from exposure to space.

“Our work allows us to use noble gases, such as argon, helium, neon, and xenon, to measure the duration a sample has been exposed to cosmic rays, and this can help us understand the history of that sample,” said Curran. “Cosmic rays can be damaging to organic material that may be in a sample, so understanding the duration helps to determine the effects that exposure has had on the organic.”

Both Elsila and Curran are in possession of frozen and non-frozen lunar samples. When these samples were brought to Earth, a portion was stored at room temperature and another portion was frozen, allowing for comparison between the two groups. Scientists will analyze both sets of samples to ascertain if there are differences in the organic content. Understanding any variations caused by the different curation methods might inform future decisions about how to store samples returned by Artemis astronauts, part of what the ARES team at Johnson will be doing.

For Elsila, “it’s very cool to think about all the work that went into collecting the samples on the Moon and then all the forethought and care that went into preserving them for us to be able to analyze at this time,” she noted. 

As for Curran, “when you think of how these samples have come from another world, how far they have travelled and the solar system history they have preserved inside of them, it always blows my mind,” she added.

Learn more about how NASA studies Apollo samples and other celestial bodies at:

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John Gorter
May 4, 2022 12:25 am

No mention of geologist Harrison Schmitt. The only geologist to land on the moon.

Tom Abbott
Reply to  John Gorter
May 4, 2022 5:36 am

Or of Eugene Shoemaker.

In 1960, Shoemaker directed a team at the USGS center in Menlo Park, California, to generate the first geologic map of the Moon using photographs taken by Francis G. Pease. Shoemaker also helped pioneer the field of astrogeology by founding the Astrogeology Research Program. He was prominently involved in the Lunar Ranger missions to the Moon, joining the television imaging team of Harold Urey and Gerard Kuiper, which turned into a preparatory mission for the future crewed landing. Shoemaker was then chosen to be the principal investigator for the Surveyor program‘s television experiment, and then the lunar geology principal investigator for Apollo 11, Apollo 12, and Apollo 13.[11]: 85–86, 92–97, 101, 119, 136 

Shoemaker was also involved in the training of the American astronauts. He himself was a possible candidate for an Apollo Moon flight and was set to be the first geologist to walk on the Moon but was disqualified due to being diagnosed with Addison’s disease, a disorder of the adrenal gland. Shoemaker would train astronauts during field trips to Meteor Crater and Sunset Crater near Flagstaff.[13] He was a CBS News television commentator on the early Apollo missions, especially the Apollo 8 and Apollo 11 missions, appearing with Walter Cronkite during live coverage of those flights.

end excerpt

Gordon A. Dressler
Reply to  John Gorter
May 4, 2022 8:31 am

Is it most important that a geologist landed on the moon, or that geologists have taken part in the scientific analyses of the returned lunar rock and soil samples?

I admit that an astronaut having training as a geologist (Schmitt’s Apollo 17 lunar landing/exploration mission) was likely beneficial in the selection of certain rocks, but that does not mean the lunar samples retrieved from the preceding five lunar missions, in different areas of the lunar surface, were of lesser value.

Reply to  Gordon A. Dressler
May 4, 2022 8:40 am

The ability of a trained geologist to quickly discriminate between interesting and mundane areas to explore is a quick gate way to reduce expending limited time on deciding where to go and what to collect.

Gordon A. Dressler
Reply to  Rocketscientist
May 4, 2022 9:52 am

I will just comment that said “trained” geologist obviously had no previous training in the lunar environment with its associated surface morphology/”lunology” so as to be able to quickly and reliably “discriminate between interesting and mundane areas”.

That assertion might be true if the lunar surface rocks and soils closely resembled some place on Earth (where said astronaut had trained/gained experience), but I have not heard that that was the case for Apollo 17’s lunar explorations.

May 4, 2022 12:32 am

Leaving the samples unanalysed for fifty years would suggest that the scientists involved cannot have really wanted these artefacts in the first place – artefacts that cost a few trillion dollars to acquire, by the way.

Where is the burning curiosity?

Reply to  FoS
May 4, 2022 3:22 am

They didn’t get grant money until now 😉

Flash Chemtrail
Reply to  FoS
May 4, 2022 5:49 am

Not unlike spending 130 billion dollars on a space station that has produced zilch/zero/nada in actual science. But hey, moon rocks y’all!!!

Pat Frank
Reply to  Flash Chemtrail
May 4, 2022 11:22 am

Well, we now know for sure that the moon isn’t made of green cheese. 🙂

Gordon A. Dressler
Reply to  FoS
May 4, 2022 6:58 am

Leaving some of the lunar samples untouched for fifty years actually has a great benefit, as well as being logical.

The capability for quantitative chemical analysis has increased by at least one order-of-magnitude over what it was 50 years ago, including new methods for examination and analyses that have been invented since then.

Just one shining example: inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry (ICP-MS) was developed in 1980 and commercially available by 1983. It is now one of the most important, widely-used tools for elemental analysis due to its high sensitivity, its high degree of selectivity, and its good precision for determining many elements in the periodic table.

Last edited 10 months ago by Gordon A. Dressler
Reply to  Gordon A. Dressler
May 4, 2022 7:39 am

That is an argument for not doing any analysis ever – since there will always be better technology just round the corner.

Nor are we suggesting the destructive analysis of the entire batch, they seem to have quite a pile available.

Gordon A. Dressler
Reply to  FoS
May 4, 2022 8:19 am

“That is an argument for not doing any analysis ever . . .”

That is your argument, not mine.

I never stated or implied that NASA should not, from time-to-time, analyze some of the “quite a pile” (your words) of samples that they have archived.

Reply to  Gordon A. Dressler
May 4, 2022 10:55 am

It appears that you edited your initial comment ‘3 hours ago’. Don’t tell me you added ‘some of’, and underlined ‘some’. I hope not, because it is no longer the comment upon which I commented.

‘3 hours ago’, the edit would have taken place shortly after my little bit of mockery.

Tsk, tsk…

Pat Frank
Reply to  FoS
May 4, 2022 11:41 am

Lunar rocks were analyzed back in 1970

G.H. Morrisson, et al. (1970 Multielement Analysis of Lunar Soil and Rocks Science 167(3918) 505-507.

K. K. Turekian & D. P. Kharkar (1970) Neutron Activation Analysis of Milligram Quantifies of Lunar Rocks and Soils Science 167(3918) 507-509

Much of that issue of Science was taken up with analysis of lunar rocks.

Also G. H. Morrisson (1971) Evaluation of Lunar Elemental Analyses Anal. Chem. 43(7) 23A-31A

V Wieland
Reply to  Pat Frank
May 7, 2022 10:02 pm

That’s strange as the opening paragraph says they were brought back in1972?

Gordon A. Dressler
Reply to  FoS
May 4, 2022 12:31 pm

OK, I won’t “tell you” because I did nothing of the sort.

I “edited” my response to which you refer so disparagingly for the sole purpose of including the example of the ICP-MS instrument invention since Apollo 17, and I took the time to research and confirm the actual timeline for that scientific development vis-a-vis the end of the Apollo program.

As for your memory . . .

Gordon A. Dressler
Reply to  FoS
May 4, 2022 1:14 pm

And, FoS, you appear totally unaware that the time interval in which one is allowed to edit his/her given posting on WUWT is something in the range of 10-15 minutes . . . after that, editing is not possible.

Since the above comments trail shows that I posted my comment that is the subject of your claim at May 4, 2022 6:58 am, and you replied to it at May 4, 2022 8:19 am, some 21 minutes later, your insinuation that I edited it in reply to anything you posted is, quite simply, absurd.

Tom Abbott
Reply to  Gordon A. Dressler
May 5, 2022 5:45 am

It’s more like five minutes. After that, you can’t edit your post.

Reply to  FoS
May 4, 2022 11:10 am

Since most modern instruments take only milligrams to micrograms of material to analyze effectively (depending on technique,) splitting the sample and sending exceedingly small amounts to the researchers is a good way to do analysis while preserving the samples for future higher resolution techniques.

John Hultquist
Reply to  Gordon A. Dressler
May 4, 2022 9:48 am

 untouched for fifty years actually has a great benefit”

Are we to assume that some analyses were done, or was nothing done?

Either way, I agree with you. My college chemistry lab-classes in the early 1960s used “wet chemistry”, although we did take a field trip to the Pittsburgh Coal Research Center. Here is a link that I will now read:
CDC – Mining – A History of the Bureau of Mines Pittsburgh Research Center – NIOSH

Gordon A. Dressler
Reply to  John Hultquist
May 4, 2022 12:34 pm

“Are we to assume that some analyses were done, or was nothing done?”

Please see Pat Frank comment above responding to FoS, posted at  May 4, 2022 11:41 am.

Reply to  Gordon A. Dressler
May 4, 2022 10:40 am

Another point to consider is that there are plans to get more samples.
Analysis of existing samples could indicate where to look or avoid for future samples.
I certainly hope that further exploration leads to permanent bases. I believe that a lunar base would be stepping stone for a space industry that would harvest the resources of the solar system.

Gordon A. Dressler
Reply to  Brad-DXT
May 4, 2022 12:37 pm

I know there are “plans” to return to the Moon, which presumably offers the possibility to return additional samples to Earth . . . but perhaps you missed my sarcastic remark that such is likely to happen some 50 years from now.

Reply to  FoS
May 4, 2022 8:42 am

Unfortunately not all the samples were left untouched. There is a sample of moon rock lost in my fraternity house in Boston. (I was not involved)

Gordon A. Dressler
Reply to  Rocketscientist
May 4, 2022 12:38 pm

“Lost”, you say?

D. J. Hawkins
Reply to  FoS
May 4, 2022 8:56 am

…artefacts that cost a few trillion dollars to acquire…

Try $25.8 billion in actual dollars, or $257 billion in 2020 inflation adjusted dollars. Google can keep you from looking like an idiot, if you make the effort.

How much did the Apollo program cost? | The Planetary Society

Reply to  D. J. Hawkins
May 4, 2022 10:47 am

I’ll stick with trillions – it’s hyperbole, so it sounds much more fun.

Yes, what did pedants do before Google? I’m shocked that the pedant should cherry pick the lower amount from his own googled source:

$25.8 billion on Project Apollo between 1960 and 1973, or approximately $257 billion when adjusted for inflation to 2020 dollars.

Even so, it’s still shocking that Project Apollo alone cost a quarter of a trillion for some rocks and the non-stick pan (and the ICBM).

Reading on a bit gets you to half a trillion:

Adding Project Gemini and the robotic lunar program, both of which enabled Apollo, the U.S. spent a total of $28 billion ($280 billion adjusted). Spending peaked in 1966, three years before the first Moon landing. The total amount spent on NASA during this period was $49.4 billion ($482 billion adjusted).

Being an idiot, I had never heard of the The Planetary Society. It appears to be a lobbying organization of sciency types for the disbursement of taxpayers’ cash for the benefit of sciency types. The website tells us that the CEO is none other than Bill Nye, the sciency guy so well known to WUWT regulars. I rest my case.

Who cares? I don’t. It could be gazillions for all I know or want to know. The point is that an awful lot of money was spent filling a fridge with rocks, a collection which, on the face of it in the article, no one has bothered with for fifty years.

Pat Frank
Reply to  FoS
May 4, 2022 11:44 am

A fine argument against Columbus.

Reply to  Pat Frank
May 8, 2022 9:31 am

Assuming this cryptic remark means what I think it means, given the current coast to coast craziness in the USA over almost everything, the jury is still out on whether Columbus’ discovery was a Good Thing.

Gordon A. Dressler
Reply to  FoS
May 4, 2022 12:59 pm

Project Apollo (and the space mission technology developments that were required for it to go forward) resulted in numerous advances that benefited all of mankind.

Sorry, but it is just sophomoric to state “it’s still shocking that Project Apollo alone cost a quarter of a trillion for some rocks and the non-stick pan (and the ICBM)”.

First off, ICBM fielded technology predates the start of Project Apollo.

Second, the chemical compound Teflon was discovered by Roy Plunkett at the DuPont Company in 1938, well before the founding of NASA in 1958 and the subsequent development of rockets capable of space exploration. 

I offer up the following recommend website, not so much for you but for other WUWT readers that might be interested in knowledge and truth:

Facts matter.

D. J. Hawkins
Reply to  FoS
May 10, 2022 1:06 pm

You know, you’re going to rupture yourself yanking those goal posts all over the field. The half trillion you “discovered” is the total program cost, so includes everything not related to the moon race. And half a trillion is still not “trillions”, not even one of them. And since perceived pedantry seems to cheese you off, the word “artefact” refers to a man made object, not a rock lying on a lunar plain.

From the Cambridge Dictionary:

an object that has been made by a person, such as a tool or a decorationespecially one that is of historical interest

Reply to  FoS
May 4, 2022 9:46 pm

These samples were deliberately set aside for a day when more sophisticated analytical tools and techniques became available.

Bob Smith
Reply to  FoS
May 6, 2022 8:07 am

This was a planned activity in the original Apollo sample return program.
In an impressive act of foresight, NASA left some of the samples unopened and in pristine condition. Why? Because they knew the technology used to study the samples would improve over time.

Fifty years have passed since Apollo 17 returned to Earth, and NASA has decided that now is the time to open the last remaining pristine lunar sample from the Apollo Program. The Apollo Next Generation Sample Analysis Program (ANGSA) will unseal the sample. ANGSA is a team of scientists whose goal is to “…maximize the science derived from samples returned by the Apollo Program in preparation for future lunar missions anticipated in the 2020s and beyond.”

May 4, 2022 3:01 am

Instead of these samples being shipped carefully to the DC area for study, why aren’t the scientists instead being employed in Houston to study them there? It saves a step in the process and the possible danger in shipping. It also gets more of the government out of the DC area and dispersed throughout the country.

Reply to  DonK31
May 4, 2022 3:22 am

This ^

Alexy Scherbakoff
Reply to  DonK31
May 4, 2022 4:29 am

Probably a special laboratory. Easier to ship samples rather than a laboratory. Laboratories are not created equal.

Reply to  Alexy Scherbakoff
May 4, 2022 4:46 am

The samples were stored in Houston long before the purpose built lab was built in MD. While I agree that it is a special lab, it should have been built in Houston so that the samples need not be shipped.

Reply to  DonK31
May 4, 2022 11:18 am

But then the bureaucrats in DC couldn’t give congress critters show and tell visits to defend their budgets. Most federal agencies are in DC so they can show the politicians the wonderful work they are doing (aka baffling them with BS, but pretty BS)

Tom Abbott
Reply to  OweninGA
May 5, 2022 5:54 am

“But then the bureaucrats in DC couldn’t give congress critters show and tell visits to defend their budgets.”

You can safely bet your next paycheck that one or more congresscritters were involved in determining where the new NASA facility would be built. The decision wasn’t made based on the most logical choice, which would be to build the new laboratory in the same location as the Moon samples.

NASA is more than happy to spread their facilities far and wide. That way they get more congressional support and votes, and congresscritters are more than happy to help NASA out, if their district/State gets the new jobs.

Gordon A. Dressler
Reply to  DonK31
May 4, 2022 6:59 am

Ho hum . . . follow the money.

May 4, 2022 4:17 am

 Previous research showed that some lunar samples contain amino acids, which are essential to life on Earth. “

Amino acids are building blocks for proteins, which from which all living organisms are constructed, inside of living cells. Proteins are constructed by RNA organelles within cells, orchestrated by DNA. But this activity is never observed outside of the protective environment of cell walls and membranes.

Fragments of DNA and RNA, nucleotide bases, have been found in meteorites. But if DNA/RNA cannot exist ‘naked’, outside of cells, how did it evolve?

I am hoping that is one of the questions this research will answer.

Gordon A. Dressler
May 4, 2022 6:41 am

So very cool that the NASA GSFC team was able to use a sample lunar rock from the Apollo 17 mission on the 50th year anniversary of that flight . . . especially since the Artemis program, at its demonstrated rate-of-progress, may actually reach the Moon’s surface in, oh, another 50 years.

Reply to  Gordon A. Dressler
May 4, 2022 7:42 am

…and we’ll have even better analysis tools then – so they should take their time!

Reply to  FoS
May 4, 2022 9:22 am

…or go get more.

Pat Frank
May 4, 2022 11:20 am

The samples should have been shipped in a cold dry nitrogen Dewar (T < -100 C). Dry ice – frozen CO₂ – is not unreactive. Surface oxides may convert to carbonates. Maybe that won’t happen. But why risk it?

I agree with Natalie Curran that it’s mind-blowing to handle those samples considering their amazing origin and history. It’s a total privilege to work with such samples.

I felt something a bit similar when I worked with wood from the ram of a Roman warship that participated in (and sank after) the first naval battles of the First Punic War.

May 4, 2022 1:18 pm

Why aren’t they being studied remotely using Waldos? /sarc

“Jenkins thrust his arms into the waldoes and waited. Waldo put his arms into the primary pair before him; all three pairs, including the secondary pair mounted before the machine, came to life. Jenkins bit his lip, as if he found unpleasant the sensation of having his fingers manipulated by the gauntlets he wore.

Waldo flexed and extended his fingers gently; the two pairs of waldoes in the screen followed in exact, simultaneous parallelism.”

Paul Hurley (aka PaulH)
May 4, 2022 3:52 pm

Fifty years? Where did the time go?

Tom Abbott
Reply to  Paul Hurley (aka PaulH)
May 5, 2022 5:58 am

Time flies when you’re having fun!

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