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Researchers from all over the country will soon be studying moon rocks that NASA has never opened before, and some of the samples will be analyzed at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, as early as this fall.

The research project, which NASA calls the Apollo Next Generation Sample Analysis Program, is one of the many ways the agency is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing, which took place in 1969 with the Apollo 11 mission.

“NASA maintained some of these amazing samples sealed and undisturbed for 50 years hoping for much better research technology to study them, which is exactly what happened,” said Molly McCanta, professor of mineralogy and petrology in UT’s Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences.

McCanta teamed up with researchers at Argonne National Laboratory and the University of Massachusetts to analyze rocks collected by the Apollo 17 mission, which landed on the moon in 1972.

The samples that McCanta and her team will study were obtained in the Taurus-Littrow Valley, a region of the moon between the Sea of Tranquility and the Sea of Serenity.

The samples were acquired by drilling out cylinders of rock at a depth of approximately 3.5 feet. The cylinders have remained sealed since 1972.

Analysis of the samples could help establish if there is water under the moon’s surface.

“Water contains hydrogen, an element that diffuses very fast on the surface of the moon. By studying these underground samples, we might be able to better observe the presence of hydrogen,” McCanta explained.

But there is also another reason she wants to study the samples brought home by the Apollo 17 mission.

“Apollo 17 is the only moon mission to have ever had a geologist in the crew: Harrison Schmitt. So naturally we have a very strong interest in the samples he helped collect,” said McCanta.

Back on earth in the Johnson Space Center was geoscientist Lawrence “Larry” Taylor, who helped advise the astronauts as they conducted moonwalks and examined rocks.

Taylor established UT’s earth and planetary sciences program and was a key player in the founding of UT’s Planetary Geosciences Institute.

UT granted Schmitt an honorary doctorate for his geological work in spring 2017. Taylor passed away later that year.

McCanta’s research will run for three years beginning at the end of May, when the researchers will meet at the NASA Johnson Space Center in Texas to determine the best way to open the samples and transport them.

UT will be responsible for the geochemical characterization of the samples, which will help determine the origin of the materials.

CONTACT:

Andrea Schneibel (865-974-3993, andrea.schneibel@utk.edu)