Back in December 1972, Apollo 17 Commander Eugene Cernan collected a sample of lunar soil from the Taurus-Littrow Valley on the Moon, before returning the material to Earth inside a vacuum-sealed cylinder. For the past 49 years, the sample has remained untouched, yet scientists are now preparing to pierce the container and analyze its contents.
The belated opening forms part of the Apollo Next-Generation Sample Analysis (ANGSA) program, which oversees the examination of Apollo-era Moon samples. In this instance, researchers will make use of a newly developed device that has been dubbed the “Apollo can opener” in order to unbox their precious lunar bounty.
Built by the European Space Agency (ESA), the contraption has been specifically designed to puncture the vacuum-sealed container and capture any fragile gases that may be lurking within. At this stage, it is unknown how well these vapors have been preserved by the cylinder that has housed them for the past five decades, yet researchers are hopeful that the sample may include hydrogen, helium and other noble gases trapped within the lunar soil.
By examining the material, scientists expect to gain some valuable insights into the Moon’s geology, while also learning about the successes and failures of the Apollo 17 sample container. This information will aid the development of future sampling tools for use on the Moon, Mars or potentially even further afield.
“The opening and analyses of these samples now, with the technical advancements achieved since the Apollo era, can enable new scientific discoveries on the Moon. This can also inspire and inform a new generation of explorers,” explained Francesca McDonald, who leads the ESA’s collaboration with ANGSA.
“We are eager to learn how well the vacuum container preserved the sample and the fragile gases,” she says, adding that “each gas component that is analyzed can help to tell a different part of the story about the origin and evolution of volatiles on the Moon and within the early Solar System.”
The final manned mission to the Moon, Apollo 17 was also the first to include a professional geologist among its crew, in the form of lunar module pilot Harrison Schmitt. Also present in the command module were five mice named Fe, Fi, Fo, Fum, and Phooey.
The Taurus–Littrow valley was chosen as the landing site so that the astronauts could attain samples of lunar soil that predate the Mare Imbrium lava plain, which had been explored and analyzed by the Apollo 15 mission the previous year. Now that NASA has a can opener that’s up to the task of releasing this sample, Apollo 17 could finally be about to complete its mission.