Sealed Cache of Moon Rocks to Be Opened by NASA

Later this year, NASA will reveal never-before-seen morsels of the moon, the agency announced on Monday.

The astronauts of the Apollo missions that landed on the moon from 1969 to 1972 collected 842 pounds worth of lunar rocks, core samples, pebbles, sand and dust. Many of those samples were later opened on the ground. But three have remained sealed — their contents stashed away for nearly 50 years.

They were intentionally saved for a time when more advanced technology would allow planetary scientists on Earth to delve deeper into the moon’s mysteries.

“The technology available in the ’60s and ’70s wasn’t able to do what we can do now,” said Jessica Barnes, an astronomer soon to join the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory. “Now we can go to a mineral and we can look at the very fine details, down to almost the width of a human hair.”

And those cooled droplets, or glass beads, are a treasure trove for scientists. They provide a window into the interior of the moon, and could answer fundamental questions about how our nearest neighbor evolved.

The moon’s history is a common theme in many of the selected projects. Kees Welten, a scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, and his team will study a core collected by Harrison Schmitt and Gene Cernan, the Apollo 17 astronauts, in order to better gauge the impact history of the moon. That can be used as a proxy for other planets in the solar system (including Earth) whose craters long-ago disappeared.

Other teams are looking toward the future.

Dr. Barnes and her colleagues will analyze four rocks collected from the same site where Apollo 17 landed. Chemically, the samples are very similar to one another — except one was chilled to -20 degrees Celsius within a month of return. It has remained in cold storage ever since.

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