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Collecting Moon Rocks

Apollo astronauts used specialized tools and technology made for space to collect lunar samples.

Sample Collection Tools

The pressure suits worn by the Apollo astronauts restricted their mobility, particularly their ability to bend over, while on the Moon. For this reason, special tools were designed to allow them to collect rocks and soil for return to Earth. The design of these tools changed somewhat from mission to mission as experience was gained about what worked best. The photographs shown here illustrate the general nature of these tools.

Tongs were used to pick up rock samples. Apollo 12 photograph AS12-47-6932.

Scoops were used to collect soil samples. Several different scoop designs were used during the Apollo program. A shovel-like trenching tool was also used on one mission. Apollo 17 photograph AS17-146-22371.

Rakes were used to collect small pebbles. The tines on the rake are 1 centimeter apart. The rake was dragged through the soil and then shaken. Small particles fell through the tines and larger particles were trapped in the rake and dumped into a sample bag for return to Earth. Apollo 16 photograph AS16-116-18629.

This photo shows a rake being used by Apollo 17 astronaut Jack Schmitt. Apollo 17 photograph AS17-134-20425.

Hammers were used to break small chips off large rocks and to drive core tubes into the ground. Apollo 15 photograph AS15-82-11140

Core tubes were used to obtain samples from below the Moon's surface. These tubes were either 2 or 4 centimeters in diameter and were pounded into the surface with a hammer. Such core tubes reached a maximum depth of about 70 centimeters, requiring about 50 hammer blows. Apollo 12 photograph AS12-49-7286.

To obtain material from greater depths, an electric drill was used on Apollos 15, 16, and 17. This drill collected a core that was 2 centimeters in diameter and up to 3 meters deep. In this photograph, the drill is used in crew training on Earth. NASA/Johnson Space Center photograph S70-29673.

Sample Collection Procedures

When time permitted, samples were photographed prior to being collected. These photos document the context in which each sample was found, which assists in interpreting the history of the sample. The three-leg device in this photograph is a gnomon. The bar on the left leg calibrates both the size and the color of the sample. From the direction of the Sun's shadow, the sample's orientation on the ground can be determined. Apollo 17 photograph AS17-137-20963.

Impact craters eject material from below the surface of the Moon and thus serve as natural drill cores into the Moon's upper layers. The ejected material is deposited in the region surrounding the crater. Material from the greatest depth is deposited close to the crater's rim, and material from shallower depths is deposited at greater distances from the crater. To take advantage of this, astronauts sometimes used a procedure known as radial sampling. This involved collecting samples at varying distances from a crater's rim, in essence collecting material from different depths below the Moon's surface. This was sometimes done at a single field stop, as shown here where astronaut Charles Duke collects material on the rim of Plum Crater. At the other extreme, the entire second EVA on Apollo 14 was a radial sampling profile of Cone Crater. Apollo 16 photograph AS16-114-18423.

The sample collection to be performed at each field stop was carefully planned prior to the start of the mission. The astronauts carried checklists, seen here on the right arm, to guide them in performing these activities. During the course of the mission, these preplanned activities were sometimes modified based on crew observations. A team of geologists was present in Mission Control to provide advice during all of the extravehicular activities. Apollo 15 photograph AS15-82-11145.

Storing the Samples

Individual samples were stored in small sample bags. These bags had unique identification numbers, so each sample could be matched to its collection site after the samples were returned to Earth. In this photo, the sample bags are attached to the astronaut's right glove. Apollo 16 photograph AS16-116-18649.

Individual sample bags were collected into larger sample collection bags for transport back to the lunar module. These large bags could be attached to an astronaut's backpack (as shown here) or to the lunar rover. Because of the limited flexibility of the spacesuits, it was not possible for an astronaut to place samples into a collection bag attached to his own backpack. Instead, he would place his samples into a collection bag attached to another astronaut's backpack. This meant that the two astronauts had to work near each other and carefully coordinate their activities. Apollo 17 photograph AS17-145-22157.

For return to Earth, the samples were stowed in storage boxes. This photo shows an astronaut using such a box in a training session on Earth. The box is resting on a work platform on the lunar module. NASA/Johnson Space Center photograph S69-31080.

This photo shows one of the Apollo 16 sample boxes being opened in the Lunar Receiving Laboratory on Earth. The box contains a large rock and many small sample bags. NASA/Johnson Space Center photograph S72-36984.

The Special Environmental Sample Container used a special seal to ensure that the enclosed sample was protected from atmospheric gases prior to being opened in a vacuum chamber at the Johnson Space Center. Apollo 12 photograph AS12-49-7278

The lunar samples were stored inside the ascent stage of the lunar module for the trip back to lunar orbit. A conveyor system, shown here, was available but the astronauts generally found it easier to carry the rock boxes up the lunar module's ladder. Apollo 12 photograph AS12-47-6913.

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