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Wash U Scientists To Study Moon Rocks That Have Been Sealed For Nearly 50 Years

A 14-pound rock collected from the Moon's Taurus-Littrow valley.
NASA Johnson Space Center

Geologists at Washington University will be among the first researchers to study lunar samples from the final crewed mission to the moon. 

The Apollo 17 mission in 1972 brought back moon rocks that have been kept in a vacuum-sealed tube for nearly five decades at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. Nine research teams across the country will receive portions of the collection this fall. 

The samples will help scientists understand how the moon and the solar system formed, said Brad Jolliff, a lunar geochemist at Wash U.

“We now think the moon formed by a giant impact into the early Earth,” Jolliff said. “But we don’t have all the details of that, and so getting this information will help us test what has been difficult to do prior to now.” 

The giant-impact hypothesis suggests that a Mars-size object collided with Earth 4.5 billion years ago, causing debris that eventually formed the moon. Jolliff and other researchers may be able to confirm that explanation by studying gases, such as hydrogen and oxygen, in the rocks. 

Jolliff also wants to study water on the moon. While water does not exist on the moon in a liquid form, it could be extracted from the lunar soil and potentially mined by future space explorers, he said. 

“Earth has a big gravity well, so it’s expensive to launch things into space,” Jolliff said. “It will be less expensive to actually mine these things and use them on the moon.”

Jolliff’s team includes Harrison Schmitt, an astronaut on the Apollo 17 mission.

Apollo 17 astronauts collected the samples near the base of a mountain at the moon’s Taurus-Littrow valley. They used a device called a drive tube to contain the samples in a 60-centimeter-long cylinder. NASA plans to dissect the contents from the top portion of the tube in September. The agency plans in January to dissect the bottom portion, which has frozen samples that have never been exposed to Earth’s atmosphere. 

Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison Schmitt standing at a boulder near the landing site in the Moon's Taurus-Littrow valley in 1972.
Credit NASA Johnson Space Center
Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison Schmitt will be working with Washington University's scientists. This is a photograph of him standing at a boulder near the landing site in the moon's Taurus-Littrow valley.

Keeping the samples sealed for many years was part of the plan, Jolliff said. 

“Scientists at the time had the foresight to know there would be improvement in analytical techniques and methods,” he said. “The samples have the potential to give us some new information and answer some questions we probably would not have been asking 50 years ago.” 

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Eli is the science and environment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.