In 1970, Neil Armstrong predicted that there would be people living on Antarctic-style lunar research bases “in our lifetime.” He was wrong: 50 years have passed since the last manned Apollo mission.
Maybe not that bad, though. Ten years after Armstrong’s death, lunar travel is back on the agenda, with teams of scientists from around the world working to fulfill NASA’s aspiration to have humans live on the moon in the decade.
Among them is a multidisciplinary team from the Open University, which is finding ways to extract water from moon 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, plans to live on the moon in autonomous research stations, which would allow humans to further explore the solar system, including perhaps the first manned mission to Mars.
“It’s our closest planetary neighbor, it’s something you can see whenever the sky is clear. For me, there’s nothing better than reaching out to our closest neighbor and finding out what secrets they keep. And it turns out the moon has many, many secrets, many of which can tell us the story of our own Earth,” she said.
Anand considers the dark side of the moon – the only place in the solar system that does not receive the sun’s rays – “one of the greatest mysteries of science”.
Anand has been studying rock and lunar dust samples, known as regolith, collected during the original Apollo missions for more than a decade. For a long time, scientists believed there was no water on the moon, but his team found that regolith had a high oxygen content, meaning water can be made by adding hydrogen and heating the soil to cause a reaction.
This was consistent with satellite data indicating water ice at the cold lunar poles, prompting the Open University to further research into how this can be analyzed and mined.
Anand’s colleagues will send an instrument they designed to NASA’s next Artemis mission, scheduled for early 2023, called an exospheric mass spectrometer, to drill into rock, sample and analyze water.
Research into water mining is important because it costs about $1 million to get one kilogram of any substance into space, so water mining would be much more cost-effective.
“If we can find resources to live on land, we reduce the size of the backpack we carry with us,” said Simeon Barber, the Open University researcher responsible for developing the tool.
Robotic missions are an important first step. “Before sending humans there, we need to understand the environment, paving the way for the development of the technological infrastructure,” said Barber.