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NASA’s Apollo 17 moon sample could hold 50-year-old ‘treasure’

The Sun, March 28, 2022 6:30PM Kids News

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NASA researchers open a moon rock sample that’s nearly 50 years old, brought back to Earth by astronauts as part of the Apollo 17 mission, the last time humans were on the moon. Picture: Robert Markowitz/NASA/AFP media_cameraNASA researchers open a moon rock sample that’s nearly 50 years old, brought back to Earth by astronauts as part of the Apollo 17 mission, the last time humans were on the moon. Picture: Robert Markowitz/NASA/AFP


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NASA has finally opened a moon sample after keeping it sealed for 50 years.

It was one of the last unopened Apollo-era lunar samples, collected during the Apollo 17* mission in 1972.

One of the main reasons NASA kept the sample closed for so long is that the space agency was hoping for technology to evolve*.

Now it’s almost 50 years, researchers do have the technical capability to study the moon sample in great detail.

media_cameraNASA’s Astromaterials Research and Exploration Science Division (ARES) deputy Apollo curator Dr Juliane Gross and the European Space Agency’s Dr Francesca McDonald, taking precise measurements from the newly developed tool to pierce the container without letting any gas escape. Picture: James Blair/NASA/AFP

“We have had an opportunity to open up this incredibly precious sample that’s been saved for 50 years under vacuum* and we finally get to see what treasures are held within,” said NASA’s Science Mission Directorate associate administrator Thomas Zurbuchen.

The mysterious sample was collected during the US space agency’s last manned mission to the moon. The sample from the Apollo 17 mission will be exactly 50 years old on December 13 this year.

Astronauts Eugene Cernan and Harrison “Jack” Schmitt collected the moon sample by hammering a 36cm tube into the lunar* surface. They also collected another sample that wasn’t sealed and both tubes were filled up with moon rock and dust and brought back to Earth.

media_cameraNASA astronaut Harrison Schmitt is pictured collecting samples during the Apollo 17 mission on 11 December 1972 – one such sample has just been opened nearly 50 years later. Of all the Apollo astronauts who walked on the moon, Schmitt, a geologist, was the only scientist. Picture: Apollo 17 Mission Commander Eugene Cernan/ NASA

The sample that wasn’t vacuum-sealed was opened in 2019, but the vacuum-sealed tube was more exciting because of the chance it contained substances called “volatiles” – gases that evaporate* at normal temperatures.

They would have escaped from the unsealed moon sample tube but they may be present in the vacuum-sealed one, which is why gases were carefully extracted* from the sample a few weeks ago by piercing* its tube.

“We have extracted gas out of this core, and we hope that will help scientists when they’re trying to understand the lunar gas signature* by looking at the different aliquots (samples taken for chemical analysis),” said Apollo sample curator Dr Ryan Zeigler.

media_cameraResearchers from the University of New Mexico and NASA’s Astromaterials Research and Exploration Science Division (ARES) watch in excitement as gas is extracted from the sample after piercing the inner tube of the container. Picture: James Blair/NASA/AFP

The sample was opened at Johnson Space Center in Houston. It’s hoped the lunar sample will give researchers a better understanding of the lunar surface before the next manned mission to the moon in a few years.

And if you were wondering what the sample smells like, two NASA scientists revealed that moon dust apparently “smells like gunpowder”.

This article was originally published by The Sun and is reproduced here with permission.


  • Apollo 17: last mission of NASA’s Apollo program; the last time humans were on the moon
  • evolve: develop gradually over time, progress, advance
  • vacuum: vacuum-sealed, method of storing that removes air before sealing
  • lunar: relating to the moon
  • evaporate: when a liquid turns into a vapour or gas, often by heating
  • extracted: withdrawn, removed, taken out
  • piercing: puncturing, making a small hole, going into or through something
  • signature: unique fingerprint or pattern of a particular chemical compound


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  1. The sample was collected in what year as part of which NASA mission?
  2. Which two astronauts collected the lunar samples?
  3. What did they hammer into the lunar surface?
  4. What are “volatiles”?
  5. What does the sample smell like?


1. Time capsule
NASA kept this moon sample vacuum-sealed for the past 50 years waiting for technology to improve so they could analyse it as thoroughly as possible.

If you had to prepare a time capsule for scientists that could be analysed 50 years from now in 2072, what sort of things would you include?

Make a list below:

Time: allow 15 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English; Science; Critical and Creative Thinking

2. Extension
Make up a catchy news headline for this article to grab the reader’s attention and allude to what the article is about.

Time: allow 5 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English: Personal and Social

Stretch your sentence
Find a “who” in the cartoon – a person or an animal. Write it down.

Add three adjectives to describe them better.

Now add a verb to your list. What are they doing?

Add an adverb about how they are doing the action.

Using all the words listed, create one descriptive sentence.

Extra Reading in space