In 1970, Neil Armstrong predicted there would be people living in Antarctica-style lunar research bases “within our lifetime”. He was wrong: it’s been 50 years since the last Apollo crewed mission.
Perhaps not so very wrong, however. Ten years after Armstrong’s death, lunar travel is back on the agenda, with teams of scientists around the world working to fulfil Nasa’s aspiration to have humans living on the moon within the decade.
Among those is a multidisciplinary team at the Open University, who are finding ways to extract water from the lunar rock, with the idea that this could provide the basis for a continued human presence on the moon.
The scientist leading the work, Prof Mahesh Anand, envisages living on the moon in self-sustaining research stations, which would make it easier for humans to explore deeper into the solar system, including perhaps the first crewed mission to Mars.
“It’s our nearest planetary neighbor, it’s something you can see whenever there is a clear sky. For me, there is nothing better than to reach out to our nearest neighbour and find 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 science’s greatest mysteries”.
Anand has been studying samples of moon rock and dust, 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 discovered that regolith has a high oxygen content, which means water can be produced by adding hydrogen and heating the soil to cause a reaction.
This dovetailed with satellite data that indicate water ice at the cold lunar poles, which has spawned further research by the Open University into how this can be analyzed and extracted.
Anand’s colleagues will send up an instrument they have designed in Nasa’s next Artemis mission, scheduled for early 2023, called an exospheric mass spectrometer, to drill into rock, withdraw and analyze water.
The research into water extraction is important because it costs an estimated $1m to bring a kilogram of any substance into space, so extracting water would be much more cost-effective.
“If we can find resources to live on land, we reduce the size of backpack we take with us,” said Simeon Barber, the Open University researcher leading on the instrument’s development.
Robotic missions are an important first step. “Before we send humans there, we need to understand the environment, paving the way for developing technological infrastructure,” Barber said.