Lunar Rivers? UK scientists at center of mission to extract water from lunar rock | Space | Daily News Byte


In 1970, Neil Armstrong predicted that “within our lifetime” there would be people living in Antarctica-style lunar research bases. He was wrong: it has been 50 years since the last Apollo crewed mission.

However, maybe not so wrong. Ten years after Armstrong’s death, travel to the moon is back on the agenda, with teams of scientists from around the world working to fulfill NASA’s ambition to put humans on the moon within the decade.

One of them is a multi-disciplinary team from the Open University, which is exploring ways to extract water from lunar rock, with the idea that this could provide the basis for a continued human presence on the moon.

The scientist leading the work, Professor Mahesh Anand, envisions living in self-sustaining research stations on the moon, which would make it easier for humans to explore deeper into the solar system, possibly including the first crewed mission to Mars.

“It’s our closest planetary neighbor, you can see whenever there’s a clear sky. For me, there is nothing better than reaching out to our nearest neighbor and finding out what secrets it holds. And it turns out that the Moon has many, many secrets, many of which can tell us about the history of our own Earth,” he said.

Anand considers the far side of the Moon “one of the greatest mysteries of science”.

Anand has been studying moon rock and dust samples, known as regolith, collected during the original Apollo missions for more than a decade. For a long time, scientists believed that there was no water on the moon, but their team discovered that the regolith is rich in oxygen, which means that water can be produced by adding hydrogen and heating the soil to cause a reaction.

This, combined with satellite data indicating water ice at the cold poles of the Moon, has prompted further research by the Open University into how this can be analyzed and extracted.

Anand’s colleagues will send an instrument designed by NASA’s next Artemis mission in early 2023, called the Exospheric Mass Spectrometer, to drill into rock, retrace and analyze water.

Research into water extraction is important because it costs an estimated $1m to get one kilogram of matter into space, so water extraction would be more cost-effective.

“If we can find resources to live on land, we reduce the size of the backpack we carry with us,” said Simon Barber, an Open University researcher who led the development of the tool.

Robotic missions are an important first step. “Before we send humans there, we need to understand the environment, which paves the way for developing the technological infrastructure,” Barber said.

Professor Mahesh Anand holds a piece of Chandra rock
Professor Mahesh Anand holds a piece of Chandra rock. Photograph: Courtesy of Open University

Anand wants explorers on other planets to learn from the mistakes made on Earth by adopting a more sustainable approach. His research includes melting moon dust with microwaves and using 3D printers to create tools for human habitation and growing plants in volcanic ash, which is similar to moon dust.

The work also has applications on Earth: it has used microwave technology developed to reprocess lunar dust to extract valuable materials from mine waste.

Roland Trautner, space instrumentation development lead at the European Space Agency, which funds and coordinates much of Europe’s space exploration, said the Open University’s research feeds into a new large-scale program of European lunar exploration that is “growing rapidly”.

“The search for the moon began many decades ago, but it got a huge boost during the Cold War. There was competition between the Soviet Union and the West to be the first. Because it was so driven by politics, technology was at the forefront. There was some science to be done. came, but it was on the back burner,” he said, adding that only the final mission returned with significant samples for scientists to examine, some of which are still used by the Open University.

“For several decades there was limited funding for lunar missions, but only recently has it reached a significant degree again. Part of the reason is that China and some other allies have focused on the moon and they have been very fast and successful. To some extent that has given rise to a new competition, a new race to the moon.”

The new space race, however, is more collaborative, and driven more by science than politics. Troutner expects crewed lunar landings to begin in three to five years, with research bases that accept guests on the horizon for 2040-50.

For the first time since the Cold War, he thinks, “A new chapter has begun. It’s an exciting time for lunar science and exploration”, but he’s not surprised: “It’s only natural for humanity as a species to want to take the next step.”

This article was amended on 26 December 2022 to remove an incorrect suggestion that the far side of the Moon does not receive the Sun’s rays.


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