The Apollo program was the seminal moment in modern human history and the crowning technological achievement of the 20th century. In addition to the obvious historical, cultural, and technological significance of the Apollo program, scientific results from the Apollo lunar samples have had a lasting impact on a range of scientific fields, none more so than on the fields of planetary science and cosmochemistry. Over the past five decades, studies of these lunar samples have yielded significant insights into planetary bodies throughout the solar system. Despite the Apollo samples being a static collection, recent and ongoing studies continue to make new significant discoveries. Here, we will discuss the collection, curation, and study of the Apollo lunar samples and look forward to some expected new developments in the coming years.
The Astromaterials Acquisition and Curation Office at NASA's Johnson Space Center (hereafter JSC curation) is the past, present, and future home of all of NASA's astromaterial sample collections (Allen et al. 2011). Our primary goals are to maintain the long-term integrity of the samples and ensure that the samples are distributed for scientific study in a fair, timely, and responsible manner. This maximizes the scientific return on each sample. The JSC curation currently houses all, or part of, nine different astromaterial sample collections, with two more sample-return missions underway: (1) Apollo program samples (1969); (2) Luna program samples (1972); (3) Antarctic meteorites (1976); (4) cosmic dust particles (1981); (5) Microparticle Impact Collection (1985); (6) Genesis solar wind atoms (2004); (7) Stardust comet Wild-2 particles (2006); (8) Stardust interstellar particles (2006); (9) Japan's JAXA Hayabusa asteroid Itokawa particles (2010); (10) JAXA's Hayabusa2 asteroid Ryugu particles (2021); (11) OSIRIS REx asteroid Bennu particles (2023). Additionally, JSC curation houses some combination of space-exposed hardware, contamination knowledge samples, and spacecraft material coupons for all NASA-led sample-return missions, including ongoing sample-return missions like OSIRIS-REx and Mars 2020. Each sample collection and/or affiliated witness materials are housed in dedicated clean rooms tailored to the requirements of that sample collection.
From 1969 to 1972, the Apollo mission astronauts collected 382 kg of rock, regolith, and core samples from six geologically diverse locations on the Moon (Fig. 1). Because of the dexterity, adaptability, and real-time decision-making ability that astronauts provide, the Apollo samples span an incredible range of sample types, including the following: large rock samples (e.g., the 11.7 kg sample 61016); multiple rocks chipped from large boulders (e.g., 76235/55/75/95 from Boulder 1, Station 6, Apollo 17 mission); bulk surface, trenched, and shaded lunar soils (e.g., 60500, 61220, and 69920/40/60, respectively); multiple 30–60 cm drive tubes and deep drill core samples up to ~3 meters in depth which preserved regolith stratigraphy; and several different types of special vacuum-sealed regolith and drive tube samples.
In the 50 years since the Apollo samples were collected, there have been 3,195 unique lunar sample requests. These have come from over 500 different principal investigators in >15 different countries. The total number of samples allocated is not precisely known at this time, since pre-database records (before 1984) have not yet been fully digitized, but a conservative estimate is that >50,000 Apollo samples have been allocated over the past 50 years (Fig. 2). Although demand for lunar samples has waxed and waned over the years (Lunar pun!), studies of the samples have continued as new scientists and new instruments push the boundaries of what can be done with the samples. Currently, 145 active lunar principal investigators are studying >8,000 samples in fields as disparate as biology, medicine, astronomy, engineering, material science, chemistry, and (of course) geology.
Studies of the Apollo samples, both early and more recent, continue to yield significant insights into the formation, evolution, and maturation of the Earth–Moon system, as well as many other planetary bodies in both the inner and outer solar system. A comprehensive listing of significant results from the study of Apollo samples is not possible here. However, we have listed below a subset of results that highlight the wide-ranging, long-lasting, and diverse nature of studies of Apollo samples. (1) The Moon formed from the debris of a giant impact between the proto-Earth and a large bolide early in the solar system's history (Canup and Asphaug 2001). (2) The Moon had a lunar magma ocean and it evolved akin to a global (though asymmetric) layered mafic intrusion (Wood 1975). (3) A prevalence of ~3.9 Ga ages of lunar impact melts suggests that there might have been a “lunar cataclysm” at that time, which would have affected the entire inner solar system (Marchi et al. 2012). (4) The potential prevalence of impacts ~600 My after solar system formation (i.e., the “lunar cataclysm”) was one of the factors leading to new dynamical models for the evolution of the entire solar system, such as the model developed by astronomers in 2005 in Nice (France) (Morbidelli et al. 2007). (5) By tying the ages of Apollo basalts to the crater densities in the regions of the Apollo landing sites, relative crater counting ages can be given absolute ages on the Moon, as well as elsewhere in the inner solar system (Hiesinger et al. 2012). (6) Despite decades of null results for volatiles in lunar samples (e.g., H2O), recent results (McCubbin et al. 2010; Hauri et al. 2011) have shown that the Moon is not “bone dry” and that the volatile abundances inform the models for lunar formation. (7) The way light interacts with the surface of airless bodies changes over time due to space weathering caused by micrometeorite bombardment and solar wind implantation; studies of Apollo samples form the basis for understanding this process and, thus, correctly interpret remotely sensed observations of these bodies (Pieters et al. 2010). (8) The composition of Apollo samples has directly contributed to the interpretation of remotely sensed data sets, including their use as ground truth for both the Clementine and Lunar Prospector global geochemical maps (Lawrence et al. 2002). (9) Studies of the toxicity of Apollo samples provide the basis for safe exposure limits for future human exploration of the solar system (Lam et al. 2013). (10) Apollo samples have been requested as analogs for studies of Mercury, the Martian moons, and near-Earth asteroids, as well as to better understand how to detect potential life on exoplanets and to understand the solar systems irradiation history.
Despite the Apollo sample suite being a static collection, “new” samples are still being made available for study. NASA recently solicited proposals as part of the Apollo Next Generation Sample Analysis (ANGSA) program, which includes previously unopened, vacuum-sealed drive tubes and bulk soil samples, cold-curated samples (−20 °C), and samples only handled in a He-purged environment. Furthermore, JSC curation can now scan samples using X-ray computed tomography (XCT), including polymict breccias which are expected to identify “new” lithic clasts for principal investigators to study. Similarly, there are tens of thousands of small particles in the >110 kg of bulk lunar regolith (Fig. 3), and a portion of these will also be classified and made available to principal investigators after a retroactive preliminary examination process utilizing XCT, micro X-ray fluorescence, and imaging micro Raman spectroscopy. Additionally, a new searchable database for lunar geochemical data, called MoonDB, has been brought online. Eventually, “all” previously published lunar geochemical analyses will be made available to help inform future studies.