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Wash U Scientists Study Moon Ice To Help Astronauts Explore Solar System

An illustration of astronauts at a lunar crater.
Research at Washington University to study lunar ice could help advance human exploration of the solar system.

Space explorers could someday use the moon to mine for elements needed to make rocket fuel on the moon, making it a launchpad to other worlds. 

But first, scientists need to study the moon’s ice deposits. A team of astrophysicists at Washington University has received a $7 million agreement with NASA to study the origins of lunar ice, ammonia and methane over the next five years.

Recent images from NASA spacecrafts have shown signs of ice in shadowy craters near the moon’s poles. When water is split into hydrogen and oxygen, that can be used to make rocket fuel, said Ryan Ogliore, a Wash U physics professor.

“In case we want to send astronauts there to use the water ice to make rocket fuel, they need to know where to go,” Ogliore said. 

The Wash U scientists, who call themselves ICE Five-O, want to find evidence to support one of multiple theories about where the moon’s water comes from. The three prevailing theories suggest that the water came from a volcanic eruption billions of years ago, that it was delivered by a comet or an asteroid, or that hydrogen particles from solar radiation combined with oxygen in the moon’s rocks to make water. 

Researchers aim to analyze lunar samples and create moon-like materials using chambers that simulate the moon’s cold, low-pressure environment. 

“We’re making like a ‘mini moon’ in the lab, complete with [the moon’s] radiation, temperatures and pressures; the composition of the dust and that will tell us what type of water we can create on the moon,” Ogliore said. 

With special instruments, scientists will forge tiny craters in those moon-like materials and study individual atoms of small samples they’ve created to determine the chemical composition. That will help scientists determine which theory best explains the origins of lunar water, ammonia and methane, Ogliore said. 

Figuring out how water formed on the moon could also provide details about how water formed on Earth, said Jeffrey Gillis-Davis, head of the research team. 

“If we see that the water wasn’t sourced entirely from lunar volcanoes — that it was delivered later — then it would be a strong indicator that Earth’s oceans formed at least in part by water delivered after Earth’s formation, rather than during its accretion in the early solar system,” Gillis-Davis said in a press release. 

NASA plans to send astronauts to the moon in 2024. 

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Eli is the science and environment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.