Over the past half century, NASA plucked pieces of the sky and brought them down to Earth. Samples range from lunar rocks scooped up by Apollo astronauts to interstellar dust particles trapped by the Stardust spacecraft. Forty-four years ago this week, Apollo 11 astronauts collected the first samples from the Moon.
NASA’s extraterrestrial samples originate from far-flung parts of space, but they all end up in one place: NASA Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Tex. In an Eos Magazine article recently, a JSC team involved in preserving and preparing samples for scientific study told the saga of 40 years of tending to NASA’s other-worldly inventory.
Curators provide ultraclean laboratories for studying minute grains from comets. They bathe everything from Moon rocks to bits of asteroids in high-purity nitrogen gas. For future sample-return missions, they participate today in planning to help missions retrieve pristine materials. Sometimes, they even rescue extraterrestrial gems from wreckage, as when the Genesis spacecraft crashed in 2004.
“Really bad things can, and do, happen to missions and to samples,” the authors wrote. “Careful planning and dedicated people can sometimes save the day.”
NASA’s seven collections of extraterrestrial samples include lunar rocks and soil; meteorites collected in Antarctica; falling cosmic dust caught by high-flying aircraft; solar wind atoms snagged by Genesis; comet fragments and interstellar dust particles grabbed by Stardust; and asteroid particles retrieved by the Hayabusa spacecraft.
NASA is receiving more and more requests from researchers to study its out-of-this-world samples, the authors report. Careful preservation keeps the prospects bright. Samples collected decades ago are yielding new discoveries that alter scientific understanding of planets, moons, and solar system history, they said.