Apollo Moon Rocks: NASA's Dirty Little Secrets
By Leonard David
Senior Space Writer
posted: 04:17 pm ET
26 March 2001
HOUSTON, Texas – For the Apollo astronauts, it was like bringing home the goods. Covered from helmet to toe with lunar dust, the "dirty dozen" Moonwalkers from 1969 through 1972 snagged, bagged and tagged 840 pounds (382 kilograms) of rock and other surface material.
Today, much like King Tutankhamen’s holdings, the "Apollo collection" is vaulted treasure.
30 Years Later, Moon Rocks Retain Secrets
Thirty years after they were picked up and hauled back to Earth by the Apollo astronauts, the 842 pounds (382 kilograms) of moon rocks still have not given up all their secrets.
Safely sequestered here at the NASA Johnson Space Center (JSC), Moon specimens are protected from natural hazards such as tornadoes and hurricanes. Sealed for study in nitrogen-filled cabinets, the lunar sample inventory is also GUARDED AGAINST EARTH CONTAMINATION, preserving the history-telling tales they hold about the origins of our solar system.
But new studies of Apollo lunar materials are showing just how contaminated pristine samples can become. Those investigations are expected to help clean up NASA’s act in handling an assortment of Mars's rocks, or pieces of comet or asteroid returned to Earth in the future.
"It was quite alarming," said Andrew Steele, an astrobiologist at NASA’s JSC from the University of Portsmouth in the United Kingdom, who thought he was looking at hairs from an astronaut. But they turned out to be brush fibers, he said.
Working with lunar sample curators, Steele is part of a team using powerful instruments to eye the condition of select Moon materials. He not only found brush bristles, but bits of plastic, nylon and Teflon, as well as a few earthly organisms having a picnic within lunar samples.
"Some of them are pretty snotty," Steele told SPACE.com.
Steele looked at a cross-section of lunar samples known to be contaminated, as well as a pristine core of lunar regolith brought back by Apollo 15 astronauts. Brushings from astronaut suits, along with bits of lunar leftovers swept from cabinets and control panels were studied.
All of the specimens inspected by Steele, including a core sample, show evidence of contamination, mostly by plastics, he reported during the 32nd Lunar and Planetary Science Conference, held March 12-16 at the NASA center.
A major contamination factor resulted from the practice of stuffing lunar specimens into plastic bags. In the case of the core sample, the drilling equipment used on the Moon may be a possible culprit.
The actual chain of contamination, be it on the Moon by astronauts themselves, or within JSC’s lunar handling operations, is yet to be determined, Steele said. "WE'VE YET TO REALLY WORK OUT EXACTLLY WHERE ON EARTH IT'S (THE CONTAMINANTS) COMING FROM, " he said.
Steele is quick to point out that truly pristine lunar samples are LIKELY within the Apollo collection. "The curitorial people are working incredibly hard to make sure that Apollo samples are sealed up and have never seen the atmosphere. My hat is off to them. They’ve done a brilliant job," he said.
Judith Allton, a Lockheed Martin researcher and part of JSC’s advanced curation-planning team, said that several core tubes from the Apollo expeditions remain unopened. "You need to have something in reserve for future studies when techniques are better and ideas are better," she told SPACE.com.
A key lesson learned, Steele said, is that despite use of ultra-clean rooms, sterilization and careful handling procedures, it is extremely difficult to keep extraterrestrial samples free and clear of contamination.
There is one bit of lunar folklore that may be subject to reinterpretation due to contamination on Earth, Steele said.
Apollo 12 astronauts brought back to Earth the camera of the U.S. Surveyor 3 robotic Moon lander in November 1969. There was considerable ballyhoo when a terrestrial bacterium was discovered within the camera hardware after its inspection on Earth. Scientists reported that the biology survived the trek to the Moon, and then a two-and-a-half-year stay on the lunar surface.
"Somebody sneezed on it after the camera came back. I’ve heard both stories. I don’t know which to believe," Steele said.
Former Apollo 17 astronaut, Harrison "Jack" Schmitt, said his impression is that lunar samples have been taken care of well throughout the years.
"I am sure that there may have been exceptions, but reputable researchers cannot afford to work on contaminated samples," Schmitt said in a later interview. At the time, there were unavoidable incidents of contamination, he said, which everyone knows occurred during collection, transport, and handling prior to distribution.
Schmitt said that the lunar sample containers were unable to retain a vacuum and most samples came back in bags without sample box protection. Spacecraft atmosphere and EARTH'S ATMOSPHERE CONTAMINATED THE SAMPLES at that point, he said.
* ( Oh really? ... and I have alway been led to believe that the Apollo rocks were all pristine samples and showed absolutely no signs of having entered Earth's atmosphere or showed any signs of having possibly come from the Antarctic too ... How about that !! )
"Isotopic analysis and other techniques, however, can eliminate most if not all of these contamination signals. Good research must always examine the possibility of contamination and, if possible, subtract its effects," Schmitt told SPACE.com.
NASA is now readying itself for an onslaught of out-of-this-world samples, said Kimberly Cyr, a JSC scientist involved with curation of extraterrestrial samples.
Cyr notes that NASA’s Stardust mission will return samples from a comet in February 2006. Even earlier, is the August 2004 return of solar wind ions and atoms via the soon-to-be-launched Genesis probe. Then there’s Japan’s MUSES C, slated to be the first asteroid sample-return mission. After launch in 2002, that craft is to return asteroid materials in 2007. Also, Mars return samples might be safe in Earth laboratories by 2014, she said.
Future sample-return missions from Jupiter’s enigmatic moon, Europa, as well as Venus and Mercury are possible too, Cyr said. In Apollo, and in readying for future sample-return projects, "the primary lesson is that curation starts at the beginning, during planning and mission design phases," she said.
Steele said that his work is meant to help plot out Mars sample-return missions. The techniques and tools being utilized, he said, can be applied to spotting evidence for Martian life versus contamination within samples.
"There’s a lot of new technology available, some of it from the silicon conductor industry," Steele said. "The flip side of our work in spotting contamination and terrestrial life in samples is also, ultimately, to find life in extraterrestrial materials," he said.
Yep ... That's nasa for you .... Not only incompetent , but filled with all kinds of "dirty little secrets" !
Edited by straydog, 29 December 2006 - 07:06 PM.