Astromaterials Curator Astromaterials Acquisition and Curation at JSC
by Carlton Allen
Astromaterials Curator
Manager, Astromaterials Acquisition and Curation Office

The Astromaterials Acquisition and Curation Office was established at the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center (JSC) on July 1, 2001. This new organization replaces the Office of the Curator, and the title reflects a renewed emphasis on extraterrestrial samples at NASA and JSC.

The goal of Astromaterials Acquisition and Curation is to support the international planetary science community through:

Curation of Current Extraterrestrial Sample Collections (July 2000 - July 2001)

Lunar Samples
Gary Lofgren - Curator
Personnel in the Lunar Sample Laboratory continued to prepare and distribute lunar rock and soil to the research community. This year they allocated 376 samples and 50 electron microprobe mounts to scientists in 19 groups conducting state-of-the-art geochemical analysis.
The Lunar Sample Laboratory has operated effectively since its opening in 1979. This year we initiated an upgrade of the liquid nitrogen system and studies to assess the material condition of the lab monitoring system and infrastructure.
Antarctic Meteorites
David Mittlefehldt - Acting Curator
Personnel in the Antarctic Meteorite Laboratory allocated 239 samples and 101 thin sections to scientists in 34 research groups. Laboratory personnel classified and described 661 new meteorites from previous Antarctic collecting efforts and processed 740 samples collected by the 2000-2001 field team.
Assessment of laboratory air quality and particle counts indicated that the existing air handling system had degraded to an unacceptable degree. Laboratory personnel and JSC contractors designed and installed a new air handler and filtration system that promises to give the laboratory a significantly cleaner atmosphere.
Cosmic Dust
Michael Zolensky - Curator
Personnel in the Cosmic Dust Laboratory allocated 122 interplanetary dust particles and 1 sample collection surface to scientists in 7 research groups. Collection flights by two NASA aircraft are continuing, and new sample collectors are processed in the laboratory periodically.
The air handling system in the Cosmic Dust Laboratory was upgraded in the same project with the Antarctic Meteorite Laboratory.
Space-Exposed Hardware
Michael Zolensky - Curator
Two pieces of a thermal protective blanket from Mir were allocated to scientists in two research groups.

Curation of Samples from Upcoming Spacecraft Missions

Donald Burnett - P.I.
Kimberly Cyr - Laboratory Manager
Genesis, a mission to collect samples of the solar wind, was launched on August 8, 2001. It is due to return to Earth in 2004, becoming the first spacecraft to return NASA extraterrestrial material since Apollo 17. The cleaning and assembly of collectors was conducted by JSC and Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) personnel in two new JSC clean laboratories.
The Genesis Cleaning Laboratory has now been converted to use for advanced curation cleaning tests. The Assembly Laboratory will be used for disassembly, storage, and distribution of returned sample collectors to the research community.
Donald Brownlee - P.I.
Michael Zolensky - Curation Lead
Stardust, a mission to collect particles ejected by a comet, was launched on February 7, 1999. The spacecraft is scheduled to encounter comet Wild 2 in January 2004 and collect comet dust particles in silica aerogel. Stardust will return to Earth in January 2006, and the sample collectors will be brought to JSC for processing and curation.
Curatorial personnel plan to construct a dedicated laboratory in which the collectors will be disassembled. The comet particles will be documented, stored, and prepared for allocation in a second laboratory.
ISAS (Institute of Space and Aeronautical Science [Japan])
Michael Zolensky - Curation Lead
Muses-C is a Japanese mission designed to collect a small amount of material from the surface of an asteroid. The spacecraft is tentatively scheduled to launch in 2002 and return to Earth in 2007. Initial sample processing and curation will be conducted in Japan. Discussions are underway regarding a U.S. role in the curation and distribution of part of the sample, commencing in 2008.
Curation of a small (<1g) asteroid sample will require a dedicated glovebox in a clean laboratory. Several gloveboxes are currently available at JSC, as are laboratory spaces with a range of cleanliness levels.

Forward Planning Efforts for All Funded and Proposed Sample Return Missions

Sample Collection for Investigation of Mars (SCIM)
Laurie Leshin - Concept Lead
Michael Zolensky - Curation Lead
SCIM was one of the proposals recently selected by the Mars Scouts Program for a 6-month concept study. The Program has announced plans to release an Announcement of Opportunity in 2002 and select a mission to launch during 2007.
The SCIM mission concept involves a single pass through the Mars atmosphere, during which gas and suspended dust would be collected. The dust would be collected in aerogel, similar to the technology used by Stardust. The samples would be returned to Earth in 2010.
The curatorial requirements for this mission are currently undefined. The minimum requirements, depending on planetary protection and sample size, are for dedicated gloveboxes in clean laboratories, similar to the requirements for Stardust.
Mars Sample Return
David Lindstrom - Curation Lead
The first mission to return samples from Mars is scheduled for launch no earlier that 2011, with samples arriving on Earth no earlier than 2014. This mission has not yet been funded, though considerable planning, research, and development is currently underway.
JSC curatorial personnel are involved in many aspects of this planning effort. We are participating in the early phases of decision making for the sample receiving laboratory under the National Environmental Policy Act. We have worked on mission design studies, including the science implications of sample heating and return to Earth via the space shuttle. We assessed the impacts of a possible requirement for curation at subfreezing temperatures. Several curatorial personnel have been active participants in the development of Planetary Protection protocols for Mars sample return.

Focused Research and Development in Support of Current and Future Sample Curation

Advanced Curation Laboratory
Carlton Allen - Curation Lead
JSC personnel have established a laboratory for testing technologies and procedures for the next generation of extraterrestrial samples. The first element of this laboratory, a glovebox containing a robotic arm, is in final acceptance testing. This equipment is designed to assess the usefulness of a small, dexterous robot in the initial processing of rocks and soils. We will also learn to measure and minimize the robot's potential for both inorganic and organic contamination.
During the past year we developed advanced methods for cleaning sample processing tools and enclosures. We also studied the effects of a variety of finishes on the cleaning and sterilization of metal surfaces.
The curatorial laboratories currently employ ultrapure water for all cleaning operations. The water is processed in a complex system designed to remove particulate and biological contamination. We have instituted a program to monitor both organic and microbial contamination at the parts-per-billion level in the water supply. We are also developing methods to detect and quantify trace levels of organic contamination on metal surfaces.


The Astromaterials Acquisition and Curation Office faces a range of issues over the next decade. Four issues are currently being addressed through JSC and NASA Headquarters:

  • Lunar Samples - Security of Remote Sample Collection

  • NASA policy requires that a portion of the lunar sample collection must be stored at a location remote from JSC. Currently 14 percent of the collection is stored at Brooks Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. Within the next 1 to 2 years the security status of these samples will change, as portions of the base are transferred to the city. This year we initiated a study of two options--maintaining the current level of sample security at Brooks Air Force Base or moving the samples to a new remote site.
  • Antarctic Meteorites - Increased Collections Effort

  • The Antarctic Search for Meteorites collection effort will be significantly increased, starting with the 2001-2002 field season. The goal is to find additional Mars meteorites. The anticipated increase in workload and samples will require at least one new meteorite processor and increased laboratory space.
  • Stardust - New Laboratories

  • Two dedicated laboratories will be required to support the return of comet samples in 2006. The physical space for the laboratories will be transferred to the Astromaterials Acquisition and Curation Office in early FY 2002. We have initiated a preliminary design effort for these new laboratories.
  • Mars Sample Return - Decisions Required

  • The first Mars Sample Return mission is planned to launch no earlier than 2011. However, the long lead times required by the National Environmental Policy Act and the NASA construction of facilities process require key decisions much earlier. Specifically, decisions from NASA Headquarters are needed within the next 1 to 2 years concerning the selection of laboratory management and the process for selecting the laboratory site.

10-Year Infrastructure Plan

The Astromaterials Acquisition and Curation Office is preparing a 10-Year Plan for maintaining and upgrading laboratory infrastructure to meet current and anticipated requirements. This plan will be complete in time for presentation to the NASA Headquarters Curation and Planning Team for Extraterrestrial Materials at their meeting in October 2001. The current draft of this plan includes the following elements:

  • Lunar Samples
    • Upgrade LN2 system, monitoring alarms (in progress)
    • Assess laboratory infrastructure (in progress)
    • Enlarge returned sample storage capacity
    • Maintain current security or relocate remote sample collection
  • Antarctic Meteorites
    • Upgrade air handling system (complete)
    • Expand laboratory
  • Cosmic Dust
    • Upgrade air handling system (complete)
  • Genesis
    • Convert cleaning laboratory for advanced curation (complete)
    • Upgrade assembly laboratory for sample processing and curation
  • Stardust
    • Set up sample processing and curation laboratory
    • Set up sample processing and curation laboratory
  • Advanced Curation
    • Construct robotic glovebox laboratory (in progress)
  • Mars Sample Return
    • Participate in site selection, design, and construction of the sample receiving laboratory
    • Participate in site selection, design, and construction of the sample curation laboratory