UT-Knoxville professor plans to unseal moon rocks

May 13, 2019 GMT

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — For the first time since they were collected during the Apollo 17 mission, several samples of moon rocks will be opened and examined this summer.

A University of Tennessee-Knoxville professor, Molly McCanta, will be one of a handful of researchers working with the samples through a NASA research program. As part of the Apollo Next Generation Sample Analysis Program, samples that have never been exposed to Earth’s atmosphere will be unsealed and examined.

The program is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing, the Apollo 11 mission in 1969.


McCanta, a professor of mineralogy and petrology, said this project is “the first of its kind,” and offers a rare opportunity to use modern technology on samples from the Apollo 17 mission in 1972.

McCanta, who will be working with professors and researchers at the University of Massachusetts and Argonne National Laboratory, said it’s definitely a group effort.

The group will look for the existence of hydrogen and water in the samples. Their sample will be a “drive core” that has soil and particulate from 1.5 meters below the surface, so McCanta said they will also be looking to see if the amount of hydrogen changes with depth.

“We’ve always assumed the moon is dry,” McCanta said. “Obviously, there’s not water on the moon, but all of the rocks looked dry, there weren’t minerals that had water in them. We couldn’t find any evidence of water.”

However, a 2008 study looked at older samples and found “measurable water concentrations,” McCanta said. By doing research on samples that have never been opened and never exposed to the Earth’s atmosphere, McCanta said they hope to find out if “the stuff that’s a little bit deeper might have been protected.”

The samples from the drive core will be made into small glass beads that can be examined.

“We would love to find that there is some sort of profile or that we can better tie down the hydrogen concentration in these beads because we will have a repository of what should be a significant amount of beads,” McCanta said. “If there are any variations (with depth), we should be able to see them.”

The samples will be examined at UT-Knoxville as early as this fall before moving to the next location for more analysis, according to a release from the school.

At UT-Knoxville, the samples will be categorized into their basic major and minor element chemistry, McCanta said.

Apollo 17 was the last mission where humans traveled to and walked on the moon. With this new research, scientists are able to use modern technology to still learn more about the moon and space, McCanta said.

“We had one very short amount of time when we had people walking on the moon and they brought back all of this material and we are still bringing information from it,” McCanta said. “It’s really cool that we can still get all this data and learn new things. Hopefully that will remind people ... that the data that comes out of them is decades-long.”