NASA is getting in on the unboxing video trend. Rather than containing the latest popular product, their package contains 50-year-old moon dust. Chemists at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland are analyzing samples the crew of Apollo 17 collected in 1972. Scientists ran some experiments right away, but then froze the rest. The intention all along was to preserve them for future scientists, knowing technologies and techniques would improve.
That time has come! Dr. Natalie Curran, the lunar geologist (cool job alert!) who unboxed the samples, geeks out about her role in continuing the Apollo mission. She wore warm layers under her personal protective equipment (PPE) while processing the frozen samples.
Lunar dirt is boiled into water to make what the NASA scientists call “moon tea.” They measure the noble gases (that’s the last column on the periodic table). These elements help determine cosmic ray exposure age and the effects of solar radiation on the lunar surface.
When Apollo 17 astronauts collected these samples in 1972 was the last time anyone went to the moon. No one’s even left Earth’s lower orbit since then. But that will change in the next few years if all goes well at NASA.
Dr. Curran mentions the Artemis program, which aims to send astronauts to the moon for the first time in 50 years. History is likely to repeat itself. She will analyze samples when they return, but also preserve some for future scientists as well.
The footage of NASA scientists processing samples in 1972 is amazingly similar to that of today. They wear PPE like lab coats, hair coverings, and even masks to avoid contamination. The experiments are mostly done in gloveboxes, which are sterile environments. Scientists reach in using attached gloves to manipulate the samples. While technology will continue to advance, it may be that NASA’s chemistry labs will look very similar in 50 more years.
Melissa is Nerdist’s science & technology staff writer. She also moderates “science of” panels at conventions and co-hosts Star Warsologies, a podcast about science and Star Wars. Follow her on Twitter @melissatruth.