Astronaut walking on the moon taking lunar samples.
1972 photo of Apollo 17 scientist-astronaut Harrison H. Schmitt collecting lunar samples. (Photo courtesy of Eugene A. Cerman)

NASA has selected nine teams, which include researchers from the School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology (SOEST) at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, to continue the science legacy of the Apollo missions. They will study pieces of the Moon that have been carefully stored and untouched for nearly 50 years.

A total of $8 million has been awarded to the teams nationwide.

Jeff Gillis-Davis, Hope Ishii and John Bradley, scientists at the Hawaiʻi Institute of Geophysics and Planetology (HIGP) in SOEST, are co-investigators and collaborators with the team led by the NASA Ames Research Center and Smart Systems Research Laboratory that will study how the space environment affects the Moon’s surface.

“We are thrilled to have this very exciting opportunity to study lunar samples that have been so carefully preserved for nearly five decades with our modern, state-of-the-art instruments and techniques,” said Ishii. “This research will help to inform future lunar science and sample handling as NASA sets its sights on the Moon and then Mars.”

“By studying these precious lunar samples for the first time, a new generation of scientists will help advance our understanding of our lunar neighbor and prepare for the next era of exploration of the Moon and beyond,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, D.C. “This exploration will bring with it new and unique samples into the best labs right here on Earth.”

Pristine lunar samples

Fifty years ago, with great foresight, Apollo mission planners devised special sample containment systems that were designed to preserve fragile sample characteristics that could be contaminated and destroyed by interaction with the Earth’s atmosphere. Many of these “special” samples remain sealed in their original Apollo containers for eventual study by future generations of space scientists.

The research teams will look at one of the three remaining lunar samples, from Apollo missions 15, 16 and 17, which have never been exposed to Earth’s atmosphere. The way these samples were collected and stored preserves the rocks exactly as they existed on the Moon.

The HIGP group will simulate the conditions of space to determine how exposure to the space environment affects these lunar samples and other simulated Moon rocks. Taking advantage of the state-of-the-art electron microscopes in the Advanced Electron Microscopy Center, they will also compare the carefully preserved lunar samples with those handled by standard procedures and to lunar simulants to explore whether oxidation has occurred on Earth. They will study chemical species that are especially sensitive to oxygen and water exposure.

For the full story, see the SOEST website and announcement from NASA.

—By Marcie Grabowski