Tag: lunar science

NASA Plans Missions to Mine Water on Moon & Mars

NASA/ Irene Klotz; space news

Scientifically, the Moon we know now is far different than the Moon we thought we knew only 5 years ago. Perhaps David Kring of the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston put it best when he said “lunar science has changed more in the last 3 years than in the previous 30.” 

Thought for decades to have been a dry body, in 2009 the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter – whose data now accounts for a majority of data in the Planetary Data System – showed that water is distributed widely (if thinly) across the Moon’s surface at times. The Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) and other data then showed that not only does water exist on the lunar surface, but there is a lot of it—enough (particularly in polar regions) to be used by future human missions. 

Following these discoveries, NASA is laying the groundwork for a lunar rover that would scout for subsurface volatiles and extract them for processing. The proposed Resource Prospector Mission (RPM), notionally targeted for launch in 2018, would be NASA’s first attempt at demonstrating in-situ resource utilization (ISRU) beyond Earth. 

The Resource Prospector Mission is intended to pave the way toward incorporating use of space resources into mission architectures. NASA’s planning for eventual human missions to Mars depends on tapping the indigenous resources to make propellant for launching the return ship back to Earth, and a lunar precursor mission is a convenient location to test the ISRU technology. If it pans out, it may revolutionize the way NASA is approaching solar system exploration. These initiatives are part of an evolving space exploration strategy that relies on indigenous resources, primarily to make rocket fuel for the return trip home.

The idea is to have a rover scout for areas with high concentrations of subsurface hydrogen and then drill out samples for heating and analysis. The rover will be equipped with instruments– the Regolith and Environment Science and Oxygen and Lunar Volatile Extraction (RESOLVE) payload– to extract oxygen from the lunar regolith and process it with hydrogen to make water. 

Water is the key to life support, but it can also be used for propulsion. Water molecules can be processed by electrolysis to produce oxygen for breathing or for propellant, while the hydrogen is recirculated back into the system to make liquid hydrogen. If water on the Moon was accessible, it could be feasible to set up fuel depots to help astronauts reach further destinations and long-duration, interplanetary journeys. 

Luckily, the Moon is 42 percent oxygen by mass in the regolith itself. In the minerals, there is oxygen, as well as rare earth elements used to make key components in smart phones and other advanced electronics. Scientists are planning to heat lunar material to over 900 degrees Celsius and pass hydrogen over it in a reducing environment. Then the oxygen from the granular material will be liberated and join with hydrogen to create water. Scientists have already demonstrated such techniques in field tests and are ready to move to the next step—proving the technology and mining operations on the Moon. If successful, scientists hope ISRU technologies will evolve past demonstrations and into operational missions.

It’s very analogous to the mining processes here on Earth. “It’s basic chemistry,” says lunar geologist Paul Spudis, with the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston. “The real issues are not the basic process. The issues are what are the unforeseen things about the environment, about being in space, being on the moon, being on Mars, that we don’t know or we don’t anticipate that are going to impact that production.”

Now NASA is seeking external partnerships for joint development of a robotic lunar lander as early as 2018.

“The concept of RPM came up out of the need to fly RESOLVE and the near-term, close way to test that would be on the Moon,” said Jason Crusan, director of Advanced Exploration Systems at NASA headquarters in Washington.

But RPM will also be testing technologies that we might need to go to Mars and try to mine resouces in a similar fashion. “A lot of the technologies have broader use than just lunar, [but] it’s a convenient location to test ISRU technology,” Crusan added.

Resource Prospector is among a handful of NASA lunar initiatives, including an ongoing solicitation for companies interested in tapping agency personnel, equipment, facilities and software to develop landers. NASA expects to select one or more partners for unfunded Space Act Agreements in April for its so-called Lunar CATALYST program.

Discussions with Canada for a rover are underway, Crusan said. While NASA intends to partner with international space agencies for Resource Prospector’s rover and lander, if those plans fall through the agency might consider a commercial alternative.

Other potential partners are the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, which is considering providing a lander, and the Korean space agency, which has discussed a lunar orbiting communications satellite and science instruments. Partnership agreements are expected to be finalized this year.

A review to assess if the mission is ready to move forward is planned for this spring.

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Lunar Lava Left "Strikingly Geometric" Shapes on the Moon’s Surface

moon lava


A massive feature on the moon formed due to lunar rifts, in a surprise revision to earlier theories, research shows. Previously, scientists thought the moon's Ocean of Storms was a round crater left after a giant impact, but now researchers have found it is underlain by a giant rectangle created by cooling lunar lava as the moon formed.
This finding reveals the early moon was far more dynamic than previously thought, scientists added.
The Ocean of Storms, or Oceanus Procellarum, is the largest of the moon's maria, giant dark spots visible on the near side of the moon. Early astronomers, mistaking these features for oceans, named them maria, Latin for seas. However, they are actually giant plains of the dark rock basalt. 
Stormy history for Ocean of Storms
Scientists had previously thought the Ocean of Storms was created by a giant cosmic impact that left a crater about 2,000 miles wide (3,200 kilometers) that filled with lava. Now, data from NASA's GRAIL mission reveals that Procellarum is not round, but instead is surrounded by a strange giant rectangle underneath the moon's surface. This suggests the Ocean of Storms was not caused by a meteor strike on the moon. Instead, researchers suggest, it formed as the moon's surface rifted apart.

"GRAIL has revealed features on the moon that no one anticipated before we had this data in hand," said lead study author Jeffrey Andrews-Hanna, a planetary scientist at the Colorado School of Mines in Golden. "One can only wonder what might lie hidden beneath the surfaces of all of the other planets in the solar system." 
NASA's twin GRAIL spacecraft, named Ebb and Flow, orbited the moon and measured how the strength of the moon's gravitational pull varied over its surface. Anything that has mass has a gravitational field that pulls objects toward it, and the strength of this field depends on the amount of mass in the object. Variations in the strength of the moon's gravitational pull can therefore help reveal how mass is concentrated there below the surface. NASA launched the GRAIL moon gravity probes (the name is short for Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory) in September 2011. The mission ended in December 2012 when the two spacecraft were intentionally crashed into the moon's surface.
The ultra-precise gravity map of the moon from the GRAIL mission unexpectedly revealed a set of linear structures arranged in a rectangular shape about 1,600 miles (2,600 km) wide around Procellarum. The angular shape of the Ocean of Storm's borders reveal it was not created by a cosmic impact, which would have left a crater with a circular rim.
"The observed pattern of gravity anomalies on the moon is so strikingly geometric and in such an unexpected shape that it is forcing us to think in new and different ways about the processes operating on the moon and planets in general," Andrews-Hanna told Space.com.
Lunar lava and moon geometry
The researchers suggest these newfound structures are the remnants of valleys filled in with frozen lava. These valleys arose as the surface of the moon rifted open.

"As a solid cools and contracts, fractures and faults can form, and these fractures will commonly take on a polygonal pattern," Andrews-Hanna explained. "An excellent example of this is found in cooling lava flows on Earth where the lava breaks up into hexagonal columns, as can be seen at Devil's Postpile National Monument in California. These hexagons form because when three cracks intersect, they do so at 120-degree angles, and the only polygon on a flat surface that you can make with all 120-degree angles is a hexagon. These 120-degree intersections are seen at all scales, from the intersections of centimeter-scale cracks in drying mud to the intersections of giant rift valleys in eastern Africa."
On the moon, these ancient rift zones took on a rectangular order.
"Geometry on a sphere is different than geometry on a flat surface — this is why airplanes appear to follow curved paths when you look at their flight trajectories on a map," Andrews-Hanna said. "For a feature of the size of the Procellarum region, a polygon with 120-degree corner angles has four sides instead of six — or, stated another way, a square the size of Procellarum on the surface of a sphere the size of the moon has 120 degree angles instead of the 90 degree angles you expect on a flat surface."
The rift valleys filled in with lava until 3.5 billion years ago. This lava likely came from sources within the rift valleys themselves, Andrews-Hanna said. It remains uncertain whether the rift valleys formed before or during the volcanism that filled Procellarum with the lava that cooled to form the black rock that currently dominates the area, he added.
Rift zones are well known on Earth, Venus and Mars, but previously unknown on the moon. "This reveals a much more dynamic early moon than we had previously envisioned," Andrews-Hanna said. "I think we are only just beginning to understand the earliest history of the moon."
The newfound pattern of structures on the moon is quite similar to the structures seen on Saturn's icy moon Enceladus, which may have experienced a similar geological history, the researchers noted. Prior research had not predicted these structures on either the moon or Enceladus, "which tells us that we have much left to learn in order to understand the full spectrum of planetary evolution," Andrews-Hanna said.
The research is detailed in the Oct. 2 edition of the journal Nature.

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The Mystery Behind Moon’s Strange Shapes

Earth's moon is pictured as observed in visible light, left, topography, center, where red is high and blue is low, and the GRAIL gravity gradients, right. The Procellarum region is a broad region of low topography covered in dark mare basalt. The g...

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