The Moon Could Have Gathered Some of its Water from the Earth’s Atmosphere

Our Moon is a fascinating world that has captivated us since time immemorial. Long before the first telescope was invented, ancient humans used the Moon as a calendar in the sky, with evidence that lunar timekeeping was around as early as 25,000, 30,000, and even 35,000 years before the present. Long before humanity had written language, lived in organized cities, and worshipped structured religions, the Moon was one of humanity’s first timepieces. It wasn’t until the telescope was invented that our Moon became an object of scientific curiosity, with the sketches by Galileo Galilei giving us a new perspective on our nearest celestial neighbor. As science advanced, so did our understanding of the Moon. While the Apollo missions were successful in teaching us about the geology of the Moon, it wasn’t until 2009 when the LCROSS impact probe onboard the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter deliberately crashed into a dark crater on the Moon’s south pole and detected 155 kilograms of water as it flew through the ejecta plume before ultimately crashing into the lunar surface.

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China’s Lander Has Detected Water on the Moon

Illustration: Chang'e-5 probe
An artist's concept shows the Chang'e-5 lander and ascent vehicle on the Moon. (CNSA / CLEP via NASA)

China’s Chang’e-5 lunar lander has found evidence of hydroxyl (OH) on the Moon. Hydroxyl is a close chemical cousin of water, H2O. While several other orbital missions have detected OH on the Moon previously, Chang’e-5 marks the first time it has been detected by a spacecraft sitting on the lunar surface.

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China and Russia Announce their Future Plans for the Moon, Including a Human Base

Credit: NASA

In the coming years, multiple space agencies will be sending astronauts to the Moon for the first time since the closing days of the Apollo Program. For NASA, this will represent the long-awaited “return to the Moon,” while every other space agency will see it as a tremendous step for their space programs. One thing they all have in common is that this time around, the goal is to build the necessary infrastructure that will allow for a long-term human presence.

However, amid all the excitement of this approaching moment in history are concerns about the lack of an international framework that will ensure our efforts are for the sake of “for all humankind.” Whereas NASA is seeking partners for its Artemis Program through bilateral agreements, Russia and China are pursuing an agreement of their own. They call it the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS), and they too are looking for partners in this endeavor.

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How do you get Power into Your Lunar Base? With a Tower of Concrete Several Kilometers High

Credit; NASA

It sounds like science fiction, but building an enormous tower several kilometers high on the Lunar surface may be the best way to harness solar energy for long-term Lunar exploration. Such towers would raise solar panels above obstructing geological features on the Lunar surface, and expand the surface area available for power generation.

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Astronaut Pee Will Help Build Bases on the Moon

Artist's impression of a lunar base created with 3-d printing techniques. Credits: ESA/Foster + Partners

In the next few decades, NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), China, and Russia all plan to create outposts on the lunar surface that will allow for a permanent human presence. These proposals seek to leverage advances in additive manufacturing (aka. 3-D printing) with In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU) to address the particular challenges of living and working on the Moon.

For the sake of their International Moon Village, the ESA has been experimenting with “lunacrete” – lunar regolith combined with a bonding agent to create a building material. But recently, a team of researchers conducted a study (in cooperation with the ESA) that found that lunacrete works even better if you add a special ingredient that the astronauts make all by themselves – urine!

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NASA is Testing a Coating to Help Astronauts and Their Equipment Shed Dangerous Lunar Dust

Buzz Aldrin's bootprint on the surface of the moon during the Apollo 11 mission on July 20, 1969. Credit: NASA

In the coming years, NASA is going back to the Moon for the first time since the Apollo Era. Rather than being a “footprints and flags” operation, Project Artemis is intended to be the first step in creating a sustainable human presence on the Moon. Naturally, this presents a number of challenges, not the least of which has to do with lunar regolith (aka. moondust). For this reason, NASA is investigating strategies for mitigating this threat.

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How Do We Colonize the Moon?

An illustration of a Moon base that could be built using 3D printing and ISRU, In-Situ Resource Utilization. Credit: RegoLight, visualisation: Liquifer Systems Group, 2018
An illustration of a Moon base that could be built using 3D printing and ISRU, In-Situ Resource Utilization. Credit: RegoLight, visualisation: Liquifer Systems Group, 2018

Welcome back to our series on Colonizing the Solar System! Today, we take a look at that closest of celestial neighbors to Earth. That’s right, we’re taking a look at the Moon!

Chances are, we’ve all heard about it more than once in our lifetimes and even have some thoughts of our own on the subject. But for space agencies around the world, futurists, and private aerospace companies, the idea of colonizing the Moon is not a question of “if”, but “when” and “how”. For some, establishing a permanent human presence on the Moon is a matter of destiny while for others, it’s a matter of survival.

Not surprisingly, plans for establishing a human settlement predate both the Moon Landing and the Space Race. In the past few decades, many of these plansa have been dusted off and updated thanks to plans for a renewed era of lunar exploration. So what would it take to establish a permanent human presence on the Moon, when could it happen, and are we up to that challenge?

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Dust off Your Lunar Colony Plans. There’s Definitely Ice at the Moon’s Poles.

Image showing the distribution of surface ice at the Moon's south pole (left) and north pole (right), detected by NASA's Moon Mineralogy Mapper instrument. Credits: NASA

When it comes right down to it, the Moon is a pretty hostile environment. It’s extremely cold, covered in electrostatically-charged dust that clings to everything (and could cause respiratory problems if inhaled), and its surface is constantly bombarded by radiation and the occasional meteor. And yet, the Moon also has a lot going for it as far as establishing a human presence there is concerned.

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Building Bricks on the Moon From Lunar Dust

This 1.5 tonne building block was produced as a demonstration of 3D printing techniques using lunar soil. The design is based on a hollow closed-cell structure – reminiscent of bird bones – to give a good combination of strength and weight. Credit: ESA

In the coming decades, many space agencies hope to conduct crewed missions to the Moon and even establish outposts there. In fact, between NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), Roscosmos, and the Indian and Chinese space agencies, there are no shortages of plans to construct lunar bases and settlements. These will not only establish a human presence on the Moon, but facilitate missions to Mars and deeper into space.

For instance, the ESA is planning on building an “international lunar village” on the Moon by the 2030s. As the spiritual successor to the International Space Station (ISS), this village would also allow for scientific research in a lunar environment. Currently, European researchers are planning how to go about constructing this village, which includes conducting experiments with lunar dust simulants to create bricks.

To put it simply, the entire surface of the Moon is covered in dust (aka. regolith) that is composed of fine particles of rough silicate. This dust was formed over the course of billions of years by constant meteorite impacts which pounded the silicate mantle into fine particles. It has remained in a rough and fine state due to the fact that the lunar surface experiences no weathering or erosion (due to the lack of an atmosphere and liquid water).

Artist’s concept for a multi-dome lunar base, which would be constructed by 3D-printing robots using lunar dust (regolith). Credits: ESA/Foster + Partners

Because it is so plentiful, reaching depths of 4-5 meters (13-16.5 feet) in some places – and up to 15 meters (49 feet) in the older highland areas – regolith is considered by many space agencies to be the building material of choice for lunar settlements. As Aidan Cowley, the ESA’s science advisor and an expert when it comes to lunar soil, explained in a recent ESA press release:

“Moon bricks will be made of dust. You can create solid blocks out of it to build roads and launch pads, or habitats that protect your astronauts from the harsh lunar environment.”

In addition to taking advantage of a seemingly inexhaustible local resource, the ESA’s plans to use lunar regolith to create this base and related infrastructure demonstrates their commitment to in-situ resource utilization. Basically, bases on the Moon, Mars, and other locations in the Solar System will need to be as self-sufficient as possible to reduce reliance on Earth for regular shipments of supplies – which would both expensive and resource-exhaustive.

To test how lunar regolith would fare as a building material, ESA scientists have been using Moon dust simulants harvested right here on Earth. As Aiden explained, regolith on both Earth and the Moon are the product of volcanism and are basically basaltic material made up of silicates. “The Moon and Earth share a common geological history,” he said, “and it is not difficult to find material similar to that found on the Moon in the remnants of lava flows.”

ESA’s 3D-printed lunar base concept, based on the design produced by the architectural design and engineering firm Foster+Partners. Credit: ESA/Foster + Partners

The simulant were harvested from the region around Cologne, Germany, that were volcanically active about 45 million years ago. Using volcanic powder from these ancient lava flows, which was determined to be a good match for lunar dust, researchers from the European Astronaut Center (EAC) began using the powder (which they’ve named EAC-1) to fashioning prototypes of the bricks that would be used to created the lunar village.

Spaceship EAC, an ESA initiative designed to tackle the challenges of crewed spaceflight, is also working with EAC-1 to develop the technologies and concepts that will be needed to create a lunar outpost and for future missions to the Moon. One of their projects centers on how to use the oxygen in lunar dust (which accounts for 40% of it) to help astronauts have extended stays on the Moon.

But before the ESA can sign off on lunar dust as a building material, a number of tests still need to be conducted. These include recreating the behavior of lunar dust in a radiation environment to simulate their electrostatic behavior. For decades, scientists have known that lunar dust is electrically-charged because of the way it is constantly bombarded by solar and cosmic radiation.

This is what causes it to lift off the surface and cling to anything it touches (which the Apollo 11 astronauts noticed upon returning to the Lunar Module). As Erin Transfield – a member of ESA’s lunar dust topical team – indicated, scientists still do not fully understand lunar dust’s electrostatic nature, which could pose a problem when it comes to using it as a building material.

What’s more, the radiation-environment experiments have not produced any conclusive results yet. As a biologist who dreams of being the first woman on the Moon, Transfield indicated that more research is necessary using actual lunar dust. “This gives us one more reason to go back to the Moon,” she said. “We need pristine samples from the surface exposed to the radiation environment.”

Beyond establishing a human presence on the Moon and allowing for deep-space missions, the construction of the ESA’s proposed lunar village would also offer opportunities to leverage new technologies and forge partnerships between the public and private sector. For instance, the ESA has collaborated with the architectural design firm Foster + Partners to come up with the design for their lunar village, and other private companies have been recruited to help investigate other aspects of building it.

At present, the ESA plans to build their international lunar village in southern polar region, where plentiful water ice has been discovered. To investigate this, the ESA will be sending their Package for Resource Observation and in-Situ Prospecting for Exploration, Commercial exploitation and Transportation (PROSPECT) mission to the Moon in 2020, which will be travelling as part of the Russian Luna-27 mission.

This mission, a joint effort between the ESA and Roscosmos, will involve a Russian-built lander setting down in the Moon’s South Pole-Aitken Basin, where the PROSPECT probe will deploy and drill into the surface to retrieve samples of ice. Going forward, the ESA’s long-term plans also call for a series of missions to the Moon beginning in the 2020s that would involve robot workers paving the way for human explorers to land later.

In the coming decades, the intentions of the world’s leading space agencies are clear – not only are we going back to the Moon, but we intend to stay there! To that end, considerable resources are being dedicated towards researching and developing the necessary technologies and concepts needed to make this happen. By the 2030s, we might just see astronauts (and even private citizens) coming and going from the Moon with regular frequency.

And be sure to check out this video about the EAC’s efforts to study lunar regolith, courtesy of the ESA:

Further Reading: ESA