Profs help NASA search Moon for oxygen sources including ice

Joanna Allerhand

As NASA sets its sights on the human exploration of Mars, astronauts might first return to the Moon, a place they have not set foot on since 1972, as a stepping stone in their journey.

Two Northwestern scientists recently contributed to a NASA project that photographed the Moon’s surface using the Hubble Space Telescope. They were looking for evidence of a mineral that could potentially be used as a source of oxygen for breathing or as fuel to power rockets.

“If you’re really serious about going to Mars, you have to go back to the Moon,” geology Prof. Mark Robinson said.

Since the Moon has less gravitational pull, a rocket launched from there, instead of from Earth, would use less energy. But using the Moon as a lift-off point for Mars exploration might not cost less because it would be very expensive to maintain facilities on the Moon, physics and astronomy Prof. Melville Ulmer said.

A direct source of oxygen on the Moon could potentially reduce these costs. Producing oxygen on the Moon might be less expensive than transporting it from Earth, Robinson said.

An oxygen-bearing mineral, called ilmenite, has been known for years to exist on the Moon because it was present in rocks brought back from the Apollo missions. If scientists plan to use the mineral as an oxygen source, they need to know where to find it on the moon.

“The point of the Hubble observation is because we have an incomplete picture,” Robinson said.

Using the Hubble telescope, which can detect the ultraviolet reflections of ilmenite, scientists took pictures of previously unexplored territory and of the Apollo landing sites where the moon rocks were collected.

Scientists can use the pictures from the Apollo landing sites to better understand and interpret the pictures from unfamiliar sites.

“We looked at places we knew there was ilmenite so we could calibrate our measurements,” Ulmer said.

Ilmenite may be valuable for more than just oxygen, Robinson said. The mineral, chemically known as iron titanium oxide, also contains potentially useful metals.

After the mineral is mined and oxygen is extracted, iron and titanium will be left over as unused byproducts. If the infrastructure on the Moon becomes sophisticated enough, it may be possible to refine the metals and use them to manufacture parts for space vehicles.

NASA’s current limited budget prevents it from sending people back to the Moon or to Mars any time soon, both Robinson and Ulmer said, and more information is still needed.

A Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, designed by Robinson, will be launched in 2008 and will photograph the surface of the Moon more completely than the Hubble is able to do. In addition to looking for potential landing sites, it will also look for ice at the Moon’s poles. The oxygen and hydrogen from the ice would be a very valuable fuel, Robinson said.

“If there is (ice), people won’t even care if there’s ilmenite,” Robinson said.

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