The Lunar Sample Facility was specially-built in the late 70s to provide clean storage and working space for processing lunar samples. Lunar curator Gary Lofgren says there are special challenges.
“Most important thing is to protect the samples from free oxygen — like in our atmosphere — and water, or water vapor. The samples came from a moon that has no free oxygen, has no water vapor. Scientific instruments on earth — sophisticated ones — have trouble getting a vaccuum that extreme — that’s the vaccuum of space.”
The samples are kept in a notrogen atmosphere circulated through the stainless steel cabinets.
“I’ve got one other I wanted to show you here, too. You may have heard of the Genesis rock? Well, this is the last biggest piece we have of that left. We, it’s been studied extensively.”
Less than five per cent of the samples have been distributed to scientists for study, although some part of every sample has been studied. Lofgren says the samples are often re-examined.
“Scientific instruments get better all the time. We can analyze for elements that are present in such low concentrations we couldn’t even do that ten, 20, 30 years ago. Some of these techniques have allowed us to make new discoveries about the early formation of materials in the solar system.”
Wendell Mendell with the Lunar Archive says scientists are already working with planners who want to return to the moon.
“This group is active in interacting with the people who are building those systems to try to explain to them what you need to do in terms of protocols on the surface of the moon in order to make sure that whatever is brought back is documented and is handled appropriately so that the contamination does not occur.”
Wendell says the lab is ready for rock samples to be brought back from Mars.
“And that’s even another level of difficulty. But what we have, because here we’re protecting it from the earth, there we will protect not only it from the earth but the earth from it. So there is sort of a biological safety factor there in addition to the scientific integrity.”
The rocks are in over 60 museums around the world.
Ed Mayberry, KUHF Houston Public Radio News.
Picture with Ed Mayberry and Lunar curator Gary Lofgren taken by Science Writer/Consultant Marianne Dyson