We used to think of the Moon as a bone-dry desert – but new research suggests it could one day become a base for humanity to live and to explore the solar system.
Two teams of Open University space scientists have discovered ‘significant’ amounts of water in samples of Moon rock – raising the possibility that the moon will one day support long-term colonies of scientists, explorers and even miners.
The OU findings are among a raft of new research on the Moon, unveiled at the European Lunar Conference organised by the OU in May.
The two OU teams, led by PhD researcher Jessica Barnes, and post-doctoral research Dr Romain Tartèse, found the water in lunar rocks containing the mineral apatite, gathered by the Apollo missions of the late 1960s and 1970s.
Water was already known to exist in small quantities within volcanic glasses in lunar soil, but these are rare, whereas apatites are common.
It may not yet be time to order that Moon villa with a pool, but if there is water in useable quantities it will remove one of the key obstacles to humans living in lunar colonies for extended periods.
Why live on the Moon?
As our nearest neighbour, the Moon is relatively easy to reach, and once there we can do things that would be much more difficult to do on Earth.
The pull of gravity is only one-sixth of Earth’s, so launching probes further into space will require far less power – remember the Apollo lander vehicles rising easily from the lunar surface?
The Moon would be a great base for researchers, as there is no atmosphere to block incoming radiation from stars and other objects of interest in space.
As the Lunar Symposium revealed, decades of relative neglect have been replaced in the last few years by an upsurge of interest in the Moon – with US space agency NASA actively exploring options for building a lunar base.
The OU’s best-known space scientist Professor Colin Pillinger, who sadly passed away in May, contributed to our expansion into the solar system by heading the UK Mars mission Beagle 2. In a tribute to his memory, NASA announced a rocky outcrop on Mars, currently being explored by the rover vehicle Opportunity, has been named Pillinger Point.
Despite his world-wide fame for Mars research, Professor Pillinger’s scientific reputation was built on decades of work analysing a range of extraterrestrial objects, including moon rocks.
There’s also interest from commercial companies who believe it could be a source of valuable minerals, and the OU could develop the technology to help these agencies find their answers, as the Lunar Symposium revealed.
The OU’s Dr Simeon Barber unveiled a miniature chemical laboratory to analyse water ice and other materials on the Moon. Called the Lunar Volatile Resources Analysis Package (L-VRAP), it’s designed to fit on a lunar lander vehicle.
Scientists led by the OU’s Dr Mahesh Anand are experimenting with a system for building human habitations on the Moon using locally-sourced materials and 3D concrete printing. This would reduce the need to transport large quantities of building materials from Earth.
Moon mysteries remain
But there is still much to discover about our mysterious neighbour, as the OU scientists admitted. Their findings of lunar water have deepened the puzzle about the Moon’s history and origins.
When they analysed the isotopic composition of the Moon water they found that it is almost identical to water on Earth – suggesting the water in both places came from the same source. As yet, this can’t be explained.