samedi 18 avril 2020

California Nebula Stars in Final Mosaic by NASA's Spitzer

NASA - Spitzer Space Telescope patch.

April 18, 2020

The image composite is just one of hundreds that the infrared observatory produced during its 16 years in space. 

Image above: NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope took this image of the California Nebula on Jan. 25, 2020, five days before the spacecraft was decommissioned. The red and blue bands on either side of the image represent two different wavelengths of light; the gray area shows both wavelengths. Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

Five days before NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope ended its mission on Jan. 30, 2020, scientists used the spacecraft's infrared camera to take multiple images of a region known as the California Nebula - a fitting target considering the mission's management and science operations were both based in Southern California at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Caltech. This mosaic is made from those images. It is the final mosaic image taken by Spitzer and one of hundreds the spacecraft captured throughout its lifetime.

Located about 1,000 light-years from Earth, the nebula looks more than a little like the Golden State when viewed by visible-light telescopes: It is long and narrow, bending to the right near the bottom. The visible light comes from gas in the nebula being heated by a nearby, extremely massive star known as Xi Persei, or Menkib. Spitzer's infrared view reveals a different feature: warm dust, with a consistency similar to soot, that is mixed in with the gas. The dust absorbs visible and ultraviolet light from nearby stars and then re-emits the absorbed energy as infrared light.

Image above: This view shows the California Nebula imaged in visible light. The inset shows a section of the nebula imaged by NASA's recently retired Spitzer Space Telescope, which studied the universe in infrared light. Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ Palomar Digitized Sky Survey.

The mosaic displays Spitzer's observations much the way that astronomers would view them: From 2009 to 2020, Spitzer operated two detectors that simultaneously imaged adjacent areas of the sky. The detectors captured different wavelengths of infrared light (referred to by their physical wavelength): 3.6 micrometers (shown in cyan) and 4.5 micrometers (shown in red). Different wavelengths of light can reveal different objects or features. Spitzer would scan the sky, taking multiple pictures in a grid pattern, so that both detectors would image the region at the center of the grid. By combining those images into a mosaic, it was possible to see what a given region looked like in multiple wavelengths, such as in the gray-hued part of the image above.

In the final week of operations, the mission science team chose from a list of potential targets that would be within Spitzer's field of view. The California Nebula, which hadn't been studied by Spitzer before, stood out due to the likelihood that it would contain prominent infrared features and have the potential for high science return.

Spitzer Space Telescope. Animation Credits: NASA/JPL

"Sometime in the future, some scientist will be able to use that data to do a really interesting analysis," said Sean Carey, manager of the Spitzer Science Center at Caltech in Pasadena, who helped select the nebula for observation. "The entire Spitzer data archive is available to the scientific community to use. This is another piece of the sky that we're putting out there for everyone to study."

Final Observations

The Spitzer team made additional science observations through Jan. 29, the day before the mission ended, though none was quite so visually stunning as the California Nebula. Those observations included measuring the light from dust sprinkled throughout our own solar system, called zodiacal dust. This tenuous dust cloud arises from the evaporation of comets and collisions between asteroids. Comets and asteroids are like fossils that retain the chemical composition of the material that formed the planets, so the dust provides a look back in time.

Image above: This image of the California Nebula imaged by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope features a background galaxy, with clearly defined spiral arms, circled in red. Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

Observatories close to Earth typically have trouble observing the overall zodiacal dust glow because blobs of dust tend to collect around our planet. But Spitzer's orbit eventually carried it 158 million miles (254 million kilometers) from Earth, or more than 600 times the distance between Earth and the Moon. From that distance, Spitzer had a unique vantage point away from the dust blobs.

The mission team also closed the shutter on Spitzer's camera for the first time in the mission's 16-year lifetime. This exercise allowed scientists to observe and then subtract subtle effects that Spitzer's instruments may have on the measurement of light from distant sources, enabling them to produce more accurate measurements of their cosmic targets.

To learn more about Spitzer and some of its biggest discoveries, check out NASA's Exoplanet Excursions, a free VR application for HTC Vive and Oculus Rift. This VR experience features a new activity that lets users interactively control a simulation of Spitzer. The application is available from the Spitzer website. Two non-interactive VR activities can be viewed as immersive YouTube 360 videos on the Spitzer YouTube page.

Spitzer Final Voyage VR 360

Spitzer science data continues to be analyzed by the science community via the Spitzer data archive located at the Infrared Science Archive housed at IPAC at Caltech in Pasadena. JPL managed Spitzer mission operations for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Science operations were conducted at the Spitzer Science Center at IPAC at Caltech. Spacecraft operations were based at Lockheed Martin Space in Littleton, Colorado. Caltech manages JPL for NASA.

For more information about Spitzer, visit:

Spitzer YouTube page: Spitzer Final Voyage VR 360:

Images (mentioned), Animation (mentioned), Video, Text, Credits: NASA/JPL/Calla Cofield.


vendredi 17 avril 2020

Launch Date Set for First Crew Flight from U.S. Soil Since 2011

NASA & SpaceX - Dragon Demo-2 Mission patch.

April 17, 2020

A new era of human spaceflight is set to begin as American astronauts once again launch on an American rocket from American soil to the International Space Station as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley will fly on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft, lifting off on a Falcon 9 rocket at 4:32 p.m. EDT on May 27, from Launch Complex 39A in Florida, for an extended stay at the space station for the Demo-2 mission. The specific duration of the mission is to be determined.

Image above: The SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft undergoes final processing at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, in preparation for the Demo-2 launch with NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the International Space Station for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. Crew Dragon will carry Behnken and Hurley atop a Falcon 9 rocket, returning crew launches to the space station from U.S. soil for the first time since the Space Shuttle Program ended in 2011. Photo credit: SpaceX.

As the final flight test for SpaceX, this mission will validate the company’s crew transportation system, including the launch pad, rocket, spacecraft, and operational capabilities. This also will be the first time NASA astronauts will test the spacecraft systems in orbit.

May 27, 2020: #LaunchAmerica

The Demo-2 mission will be the final major step before NASA’s Commercial Crew Program certifies Crew Dragon for operational, long-duration missions to the space station. This certification and regular operation of Crew Dragon will enable NASA to continue the important research and technology investigations taking place onboard the station, which benefits people on Earth and lays the groundwork for future exploration of the Moon and Mars with the agency’s Artemis program.

Related article:

NASA, SpaceX Simulate Upcoming Crew Mission with Astronauts

To learn more about the Demo-2 mission and crew, read the full story at

NASA’s Commercial Crew Program:

International Space Station (ISS):

Image (mentioned), Video, Text, Credits: NASA/Anna Heiney.

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Space Station Science Highlights: Week of April 13, 2020

ISS - Expedition 62 Mission patch.

April 17, 2020

Aboard the International Space Station the week of April 13, crew members conducted scientific investigations that included studies of perception of motion in space and how microgravity affects the human immune system and muscles. New crew members NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy and Roscosmos cosmonauts Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner began the first full week of their 195-day mission. NASA astronauts Jessica Meir and Andrew Morgan and cosmonaut Oleg Skripochka undocked from the space station April 17 for return to Earth.

Image above: The Soyuz MS-16 crew ship carrying the Expedition 63 crew – NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy and Roscosmos cosmonauts Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner – approaches the International Space Station as it orbits above the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Peru. Image Credit: NASA.

Now in its 20th year of continuous human presence, the space station provides a platform for long-duration research in microgravity and for learning to live and work in space. Experience gained on the orbiting lab supports Artemis, NASA’s program to go forward to the Moon and on to Mars.

Here are details on some of the microgravity investigations currently taking place:

Perceiving self-motion in space

The Effect of Long Duration Hypogravity on the Perception of Self-Motion (VECTION), an investigation by the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), determines how microgravity may disrupt an astronaut's visual interpretation of motion, orientation and distance. It also examines how that ability may adapt and change upon return to Earth by using multiple experimental time points during flight and upon return to Earth. During the week, crew members set up hardware, performed sessions and transferred data to the ground, where investigators confirmed its arrival.

Muscles, toned

The ESA (European Space Agency) Muscle Tone in Space (Myotones) investigation observes the effects of long-term exposure to spaceflight on the biochemical properties of muscles, such as tone, stiffness and elasticity. Results may provide a better understanding of the principles of human resting muscle tone and lead to development of new strategies for alternative rehabilitation treatments for future space missions and on Earth. Crew members set up and performed a Myotones session on seven muscles, two tendons and one fascia area, targets either known to be affected by atrophy during extended inactivity periods or used as a control.

Image above: The aurora australis or southern lights as seen near the southern-most point of the International Space Station's orbital trek above the Indian Ocean. Image Credit: NASA.

Keeping the immune system functioning

The human immune system is altered during spaceflight, which may increase the likelihood of adverse health events in crew members. An investigation called Functional Immune Alterations, Latent Herpesvirus Reactivation, Physiological Stress and Clinical Incidence Onboard the International Space Station (Functional Immune) analyzes blood and saliva samples to determine changes taking place in the immune systems of crew members during flight. These observed changes also are compared with health information that crew members themselves report. Results could provide new insight into the possible health risks of long-duration space travel, including future missions to Mars, asteroids or other distant destinations.

Image above: NASA astronauts Andrew Morgan and Jessica Meir set up to take photos of Earth from the space station’s Window Observation Research Facility, or WORF, which has the highest quality optics ever flown on a human-occupied spacecraft. Image Credit: NASA.

Other investigations on which the crew performed work:

- Veggie PONDS (Passive Orbital Nutrient Delivery System) cultivates lettuce and mizuna greens that are harvested on-orbit for consumption and scientific analysis.

- Food Acceptability examines the effect of repetitive consumption of the somewhat limited selection of foods available during spaceflight. “Menu fatigue” resulting from this limited choice may, over time, contribute to the loss of body mass often experienced by crew members.

- The ISS Experience creates virtual reality videos from footage taken by astronauts of different aspects of crew life, execution of science and the international partnerships involved on the space station.

- The Probiotics investigation from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) studies whether these beneficial bacteria improve the human intestinal microbiota and immune function.

- Standard Measures captures an ongoing, optimized set of measures from crew members to characterize how their bodies adapt to living in space. Researchers use these measures to create a data repository for high-level monitoring of the effectiveness of countermeasures and better interpretation of health and performance outcomes.

Space to Ground: Adversity and Triumph: 04/17/2020

Related links:

Expedition 62:




Functional Immune:

ISS National Lab:

Spot the Station:

Space Station Research and Technology:

International Space Station (ISS):

Images (mentioned), Video (NASA), Text, Credits: NASA/Michael Johnson/John Love, Lead Increment Scientist Expedition 62/63.

Best regards,

Hubble Probes Colorful Galaxy

NASA - Hubble Space Telescope patch.

April 17, 2020

This image displays a swirling spiral galaxy named NGC 2906.

The blue speckles seen scattered across this galaxy are clusters of massive, young stars, which emit hot, blue-tinged radiation as they burn through their fuel at an immense rate. The swaths of orange are a mix of older stars that have swollen and cooled, and low-mass stars that were never especially hot to begin with. Owing to their lower temperatures, these stars emit a cooler, reddish radiation.

This image of NGC 2906 was captured by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope’s Wide Field Camera 3, an instrument installed on Hubble in 2009 during the telescope’s final servicing mission. Hubble observed this galaxy on the hunt for fading light from recent occurrences of stellar explosions known as supernovae.

Hubble Space Telescope (HST)

For more information about Hubble, visit:

Text Credits: ESA (European Space Agency)/NASA/Rob Garner/Image, Animation,  Credits: ESA/Hubble & NASA, A. Filippenko.


50 Years Ago: Apollo 13 Crew Returns Safely to Earth

NASA - Apollo 13 Mission patch.

April 17, 2020

The crew of Apollo 13, Commander James A. Lovell, Command Module Pilot (CMP) John L. “Jack” Swigert and Lunar Module Pilot (LMP) Fred W. Haise, still 175,000 miles from Earth, looked back at the Moon and realized that according to the normal flight plan, Lovell and Haise would have just landed their Lunar Module (LM) Aquarius in the Fra Mauro highlands as Swigert orbited the Moon in the Command Module (CM) Odyssey. Of course, those plans changed a little over two days before when an explosion rocked their spacecraft, depriving Odyssey of power and oxygen. All three took refuge in Aquarius and, abandoning Moon landing plans, looped around the Moon, using the LM’s engine to speed their return to Earth instead of landing them on the lunar surface. In Mission Control at the Manned Spacecraft Center, now the Johnson Space Center in Houston, teams of flight controllers worked around the clock to ensure the astronauts returned safely. Lead Flight Director Milton L. Windler and his Maroon Team as well as Capcom Jack R. Lousma had just resumed their positions in Mission Control to begin their next shift in support of Apollo 13. Approximately 36 hours remained until splashdown.

Above: Swigert entering the LM Aquarius through the docking tunnel.
Bellow: Haise in the LM Aquarius making notes on a checklist.

Although Mission Control wanted Swigert and Haise to get some sleep while Lovell kept watch, all three crewmembers stayed awake and continued working. Lousma informed them that the status of all their consumables appeared sufficient to last the remainder of the mission, some with very comfortable margins, with the partial powerdown of Aquarius contributing significantly to power and cooling water margins. Eventually, Haise went to sleep in the tunnel between the two spacecraft with his head resting on the LM’s ascent engine cover and Swigert on the floor of the LM. While Lovell kept watch, Lousma walked him through the planning activities ongoing in Mission Control, including a possible final midcourse correction about five hours before entry, the charging of two of Odyssey’s three batteries from Aquarius, a procedure never done before but essentially just reversing one in which the CM supplies power to the LM on its initial activation, reactivating the CM and the sequence for jettisoning first the Service Module (SM) and finally the LM just prior to reentry.

Mission Control on the day before splashdown.
Above: Slayton during a press conference on flight day 5.
Bellow: Armstrong during his flight day 5 press conference.

Shortly after the astronauts began the 15-hour recharge of Odyssey’s batteries, Flight Director Glynn S. Lunney and his Black Team of controllers relieved Windler’s team and Joseph P. Kerwin replaced Lousma as Capcom. Swigert and Haise ended their short sleep periods and Lovell took a turn at resting, but was back up within two hours. Due to cold cabin temperatures, about 51o F in Aquarius and in the 40s in Odyssey, Lovell reported to Kerwin that he and Haise used the lunar surface overshoes to keep their feet warm and donned two pairs of underwear. Back in Houston, Chief of Flight Crew Operations Donald K. “Deke” Slayton and Apollo 11 Commander Neil A. Armstrong gave separate press conferences to update the media on the flight of Apollo 13.

Above: Lovell in the LM Aquarius. Middle: Swigert sleeping in the LM Aquarius.
Bellow: Haise sleeping in the LM Aquarius.

With all three crewmembers awake, Kerwin read up to them the overall flow of events for last six and a half hours of their mission, beginning with activating and warming up the CM’s Reaction Control System (RCS) thrusters followed by activating the LM’s systems to prepare for the final midcourse correction maneuver using the LM’s RCS thrusters. From that position, they would jettison the SM and try to obtain some photographs that might show the damage from the oxygen tank explosion. About two hours prior to entry, they would reactivate the CM which had been in a dormant state for four days, one hour later jettison the LM and begin preparations for reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere. After that long conversation, the Gold Team of Flight Director Gerald D. “Gerry” Griffin relieved Lunney’s engineers and Vance D. Brand relieved Kerwin at the Capcom console. Brand’s first order of business was to send up to the crew the CM stowage plan including which items to transfer to the LM and what things to bring in from the LM prior to separation, including the astronauts themselves! Proper stowage was essential because mass distribution affected the aerodynamic performance of the CM.

Above: An impromptu meeting around the Flight Director’s console to discuss
reentry procedures. Bellow: Lovell (left) and Swigert reviewing the entry checklist.

When it was time to read up the complex new procedures to reactivate the CM and separate the SM, astronaut Thomas K. “Ken” Mattingly took over the Capcom duties. Mattingly, the original Apollo 13 CMP grounded two days before launch due to concerns over his exposure to German measles, had spent hours in the CM simulator finalizing the procedures. A coded exchange between Lovell and Brand (Lovell: “Are the flowers in bloom in Houston?”, Brand: “No, not yet.  Still must be winter.”) confirmed that Mattingly did not contract the infectious disease and had put his talents to work to help recover his fellow astronauts. Brand then read up the procedure for the LM deactivation and jettison to Haise. Aboard Apollo 13, now 86,000 miles from Earth and continuing to accelerate, Lovell and Swigert tried to get some sleep while Haise took the watch, while in Mission Control Lousma relieved Brand at the Capcom console and avoided calls to the crew to allow Haise to rest as well. The increasingly cold temperatures made sleep difficult, and Haise began to experience chills, the first symptoms of his developing urinary tract infection likely caused by dehydration. To help warm the spacecraft and make the crew more comfortable, Mission Control gave the GO to activate the LM three hours early and orient it so it received more sunlight through its windows. Flight Director Eugene F. “Gene” Kranz and his White Team of controllers took their consoles about eight hours before entry, relieving Griffin’s team, and planned to monitor the mission all the way to splashdown. Kerwin replaced Lousma at the Capcom position for the last hours of the mission.

Above: View of the damaged SM shortly after the crew jettisoned it.
Bellow: View of the departing SM, with the CM in the foreground and
the Moon in the far distance.

With about six and a half hours to go in the flight of Apollo 13, Swigert entered Odyssey to begin the reactivation process. Using the LM’s navigation system, Lovell began the process of aligning the docked spacecraft to perform the final mid-course maneuver of the mission to fine tune the angle at which Apollo 13 entered the Earth’s atmosphere. Five hours before entry and at a distance of 44,000 miles from Earth, the astronauts fired the LM’s RCS thrusters for 23 seconds. Within one minute after the end of the successful burn, Lovell reoriented the spacecraft to prepare to jettison the SM that occurred 20 minutes later, at a distance of 41,049 miles from Earth. About two minutes later, the astronauts got their first view of the damaged SM, with Lovell exclaiming, “There’s one whole side of that spacecraft missing. Right by the high gain antenna, the whole panel is blown out, almost from the base to the engine.” Haise concurred, “It’s really a mess.”

Swigert continued activating Odyssey’s systems, some running from one the CM’s batteries with others still drawing power from Aquarius. At two and a half hours before entry, Mission Control gave Swigert the GO to activate all the CM’s systems from the batteries as Haise terminated the power transfer from the LM. He then joined Swigert in Odyssey to assist with the activation.  With direct communications reestablished with Odyssey, Mission Control updated the spacecraft’s onboard computer and began monitoring its systems via telemetry, showing a cabin temperature of 38o F!

Above: View of the departing LM Aquarius shortly after the crew jettisoned it.
Bellow: Photograph taken by an unidentified airline passenger of the
LM and SM burning up on reentry.

The next task for the astronauts was the jettison of the LM Aquarius, the lifeboat that kept them safe for four days after the accident. Lovell essentially put Aquarius on autopilot, joined Swigert and Haise in Odyssey and closed the LM and CM hatches behind him. They partially depressurized the vestibule between the two spacecraft, using the remaining pressure as a propulsive force to send the LM on its way. At 141 hours and 30 minutes into the flight and at an altitude of 12,946 miles, they jettisoned the LM, prompting Capcom Kerwin to say, “Farewell, Aquarius, and we thank you.” Both the SM and LM burned up on reentry, and an unidentified passenger aboard an Air New Zealand airliner en route from Fiji to Auckland captured an image of them streaking across the night sky. Apollo 13 was now down to its final component, the CM Odyssey. The spacecraft continued to accelerate as it approached the Earth, and about an hour after saying farewell to the LM, it encountered the top layers of the planet’s atmosphere, having reached a top velocity of 24,689 miles per hour. The contact with molecules in the upper atmosphere at such high speed caused them to be ionized, cutting off communications with the spacecraft for several minutes, a period known as the blackout. The rapid deceleration resulted in the astronauts experiencing a peak load of about 5.2 gs.

Above: Apollo 13 descending under parachutes. 
Middle: Controllers in Mission Control watching the descent of Apollo 13. 
Bellow: Moment Apollo 13 splashed down in the Pacific Ocean.

Coming out of the blackout, communications between Odyssey and Mission Control were restored. At an altitude of 24,000 feet, two drogue parachutes deployed to slow and stabilize the descending craft. At 10,000 feet the three main orange-and-white parachutes opened to gently guide Odyssey to the Pacific waters, with splashdown occurring after a flight of 142 hours 54 minutes and 41 seconds. The splashdown point was about one mile from the predicted target and four miles from prime recovery ship the USS Iwo Jima (LPH-2). The crew of Apollo 13 had made it back to Earth safely. In Mission Control, pandemonium erupted as the exhausted flight controllers, joined by astronauts, managers and VIPs, rejoiced in the successful conclusion of a very perilous mission.

Above: Flight Directors (left to right) Griffin, Kranz, Lunney and Windler anxiously monitoring the return of Apollo 13. Bellow: Flight Directors (left to right) Griffin, Kranz, Lunney and Windler cheering after the successful splashdown of Apollo 13.

The recovery team of US Navy Frogmen and sailors from the USS Iwo Jima recovered the astronauts and delivered them by helicopter to the deck of the carrier. The Iwo Jima’s skipper, Captain Leland E. Kirkemo and Rear Admiral Donald C. Davis, Commanding Officer of Task Force 130 the Pacific Recovery Forces, welcomed them aboard the ship. After a brief welcoming ceremony, the astronauts were taken to the ship’s sick bay for a brief medical checkup and telephone conversations with their families. President Richard M. Nixon telephoned to congratulate them on their successful recovery. About an hour later, the sailors brought Odyssey aboard the ship. The Apollo 13 postflight activities differed from those of the previous two Apollo missions in that the crew did not enter quarantine since they didn’t land on the Moon, although all the pertinent facilities and personnel were deployed on the Iwo Jima.

Above: Apollo 13 astronaut Lovell has just emerged from the CM as Haise (left)
and Swigert watch from the recovery raft minutes after splashdown.
Bellow: Apollo 13 astronauts (left to right) Haise, Lovell and Swigert wave
to sailors after exiting the recovery helicopter on the USS Iwo Jima. 
Above: Apollo 13 astronauts (left to right) Haise, Swigert and Lovell welcomed
aboard the USS Iwo Jima by Admiral Davis and Captain Kirkemo (far right).
Bellow: Sailors placing the Apollo 13 CM on the deck of the USS Iwo Jima.

Footnote: In Ron Howard’s film Apollo 13, Lovell wearing his old US Navy captain’s uniform makes a brief appearance playing the part of Capt. Kirkemo.

Related articles:

50 Years Ago: “Houston, We’ve Had a Problem”

NASA Commemorates 50th Anniversary of Apollo 13, ‘A Successful Failure’

Related links:


Apollo 13:

Images (mentioned), Text, Credits: NASA/Kelli Mars/JSC/John Uri.


ESA helps analyse untouched Moon rocks

ESA - European Space Agency patch / NASA - Apollo 17 Mission patch.

April 17, 2020

Moon seen from Space Station

Almost 50 years after the Apollo missions returned lunar material to Earth, ESA experts are helping to uncover the secrets of two previously unopened samples to learn more about ancient processes on the Moon – and to refine and practice techniques for future sample return missions.

Orion and European Service Module orbiting the Moon

With one sample already being analysed, preparations are now being made to open the second later this year.

ANGSA team members behind nitrogen-filled glove box

This work focuses on rock and soil retrieved during the 1972 Apollo 17 mission, and is part of NASA’s Apollo Next-Generation Sample Analysis (ANGSA) programme, which takes advantage of advanced analytical techniques.

Apollo 17 rock sampling

ANGSA consists of nine expert science teams, covering different aspects of sample analysis. ESA scientists and engineers form part of the Consortium for the Advanced Analysis of Apollo Samples, headed by Charles ‘Chip’ Shearer, one of the ANGSA lead scientists.

Harrison Schmitt on the Moon

“ESA collaborators will assist in the characterisation of samples, and help us assess how well the lunar material has been collected and preserved,” says Shearer. “Looking ahead, this will help us design future collection and curation procedures for the NASA-led Artemis mission.”

Apollo 17

To help achieve ANGSA’s aims, a truly collaborative approach is being employed.

Apollo 17 Harrison Scmitt and rover

“ANGSA ties together those who were involved in the initial curation and analysis of Apollo samples with the next generation of planetary scientists,” says Francesca McDonald, ESA Research Fellow who is coordinating ESA’s ANGSA participation. “Our diverse team includes Harrison ‘Jack’ Schmitt, the only geologist to walk on the Moon, who along with fellow Apollo astronaut Gene Cernan, originally collected the lunar material.”

Destination: Moon

Ancient lunar processes

The Apollo 17 landing site lies within the narrow Taurus-Littrow Valley, surrounded by several steep mountains including the North and South Massifs, with afault scarp, caused by a difference in elevation between the two sides of the fault, cutting across the entire region. The samples were collected from a prominent landslip deposit, which occurred when sediment cascaded down from the South Massif onto the lava filled valley floor. Thus, they contain material from elevated areas that could not have been accessed by astronauts.

The Apollo 17 region

To extract the regolith, a 70 cm cylindrical tube was hammered into the landslide deposit to produce a core, which was then separated into two halves on the surface of the Moon.

The lower half of the section, known as sample 73001, likely contains a region of the subsurface that is cold enough to have trapped loosely bound volatiles, such as carbon dioxide and hydrogen. To try to preserve these precious gases, it was sealed in a vacuum container on the lunar surface and then double sealed in a second vacuum container back on Earth.

Moon sample 73002 dissection

The upper portion of the core, sample 73002, was also carefully contained after being collected, but was not vacuum sealed. Both halves have remained in storage, under the expert care of the NASA Astromaterials Curation Team, since being returned.

ESA initially has a supportive role in the planning and processes associated with examining the lunar samples, working with the NASA curation team to ensure that the scientists are able to make their highly precise measurements.

Francesca made the trip to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, USA, in December 2019 to assist in the meticulous dissection of 73002 into subsamples, shortly after it was opened. 

During dissection, a detailed record is made of exactly where each subsample comes from within the core, allowing the science teams to make inferences about lunar processes.

Moon facts: age and composition

To prepare for the opening of the lower portion sample, ESA scientists and engineers are currently working closely with ANGSA noble gas and volatile experts to design a tool to capture any precious gases it may contain.

The results of the analysis will address questions first pondered by Apollo-era scientists. 

“It is not entirely known what caused the landslip – was it from an impact? Or from movement of the fault?” says Francesca. “If it was to do with movement of the fault scarp, how long ago did this happen? And did this result in any release of gases from within the Moon, which were trapped in the landslide deposit?”

Lessons learned

Another goal for ANGSA is to understand how effective the double-vacuum sealed containment was, which is paramount for preserving the core’s integrity and the meaningfulness of any subsequent analysis.

With future lunar missions likely to target the polar regions, and the international Mars Sample Return campaign in preparation, this will provide essential information for developing future extra-terrestrial sample containment and curation procedures.

Hunting out water on the Moon

“Utilising materials present on the Moon is an important part of enabling a future sustained presence for men and women at the lunar surface and for developing onward human exploration of Mars,” explains Dayl Martin, ESA Research Fellow and ANGSA team member.

“Understanding the composition and behaviour of lunar material is important to achieve this. The techniques currently being refined as part of ANGSA are set to provide such insights.”

Related links:

Human and Robotic Exploration:

Science & Exploration:

Apollo 17:

Images, Video, Animation, Text, Credits: ESA/Francesca McDonald/NASA/ATG Medialab/GSFC/Arizona State University.