Scientists Identify the Source of the Moon’s Water

New research finds that asteroids delivered as much 80 percent of the Moon's water. Credit: LPI/David A. Kring.

Over the course of the past few decades, our ongoing exploration the Solar System has revealed some surprising discoveries. For example, while we have yet to find life beyond our planet, we have discovered that the elements necessary for life (i.e organic molecules, volatile elements, and water) are a lot more plentiful than previously thought. Case in point, in the 1960’s, it was theorized that water ice could exist on the Moon; and by the next decade, sample return missions and probes confirmed this.

Since that time, a great deal more has been discovered, largely around the permanently shadowed craters in the polar regions. This in turn has led to a debate within the scientific community as to where the water came from. Was it the result of in-situ production, or was it delivered to the surface by water-bearing comets, asteroids and meteorites? According to a recent study produced by a team of scientists from the UK, US and France, the majority of the Moon’s water appears to have come from asteroids impacting on the surface.

For the sake of their study, which appeared recently in Nature Communications, the international research team examined the samples of lunar rock and soil that were returned by the Apollo missions. When these samples were originally examined upon their return to Earth, it was assumed that the trace of amounts of water they contained were the result of contamination. The Moon, it was widely believed, was bone dry.

However, a 2008 study revealed revealed that samples of volcanic glass beads contained water molecules (46 parts per million), as well as various volatile elements (chlorine, fluoride and sulfur) that could not have been the result of contamination. This was followed up by the deployment of the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) and the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) in 2009, which discovered abundant supplies of water around the southern polar region,

However, that which has been discovered on the surface pales to the water that has since been discovered beneath it. Evidence of this interior water was was discovered by the USRO’s Chandrayaan-1 lunar orbiter – which carried the NASA’s Moon Mineralogy Mapper (M3) and delivered it to the surface. Analysis of this data has showed that the Moon’s interior sources of water are considerably more abundant than what the surface holds.

But the question remained, where did it all come from? That is what Dr. David A. Kring and his colleagues set out to answer. By examining data provided by the Apollo missions, they examined the ratios of hydrogen to deuterium (aka. “heavy hydrogen”) and compared these to isotope rations of known comets. As Dr. Kring told Universe Today via email:

“The current study utilized analyses of lunar samples that had been collected by the Apollo astronauts, because those samples provide the best measure of the water inside the Moon. We compared those analyses with analyses of meteoritic samples from asteroids and spacecraft analyses of comets.

From their comparisons between lunar rock and known comets, they determined that a combination of primitive meteorites (carbonaceous chondrite-type) were responsible for the majority of water to be found in the Moon’s interior today. In addition, they concluded that these types of comets played an important role when it comes to the origins of water in the inner Solar System.

Some meteoritic samples of asteroids contain up to 20% water,” said Kring. “That reservoir of material – that is asteroids – are closer to the Earth-Moon system and, logically, have always been a good candidate source for the water in the Earth-Moon system.  The current study shows that to be true.  That water was apparently delivered 4.5 to 4.3 billion years ago.

The presence of water on the Moon has always been a source of excitement, particularly to those who hope to see a lunar base established there someday. But by knowing the source of that water, we can come to learn more about the history of the Solar System and how it came to be. It will also come in handy it comes time to search for other sources of water, which will always be a factor when trying to establishing outposts and even colonies throughout the Solar System.

Further Reading: Nature Communications

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Moonbase by 2022 For $10 Billion, Says NASA

Based on a series of articles that were recently made available to the public, NASA predicts it could build a base on the Moon by 2022, and for cheaper than expected. Credit: NASA

Returning to the Moon has been the fevered dream of many scientists and astronauts. Ever since the Apollo Program culminated with the first astronauts setting foot on the Moon on July 20th, 1969, we have been looking for ways to go back to the Moon… and to stay there. In that time, multiple proposals have been drafted and considered. But in every case, these plans failed, despite the brave words and bold pledges made.

However, in a workshop that took place in August of 2014, representatives from NASA met with Harvard geneticist George Church, Peter Diamandis from the X Prize Foundation and other parties invested in space exploration to discuss low-cost options for returning to the Moon. The papers, which were recently made available in a special issue of New Space, describe how a settlement could be built on the Moon by 2022, and for the comparatively low cost of $10 billion.

Put simply, there are many benefits to establishing a base on the Moon. In addition to providing refueling stations that would shave billions off of future space missions – especially to Mars, which are planned for the 2030s – they would provide unique opportunities for scientific research and the testing of new technologies. But plans to build one have consistently been hampered by two key assumptions.

The first is that funding is the largest hurdle to overcome, which is understandable given the past 50 years of space mission costs. To put it in perspective, the Apollo Program would cost taxpayers approximately $150 billion in today’s dollars. Meanwhile, NASA’s annual budget for 2015 was approximately $18 billion, while its 2016 is projected to reach $19.3 billion. In the days when space exploration is not a matter of national security, money is sure to be more scarce.

The second assumption is that a presidential mandate to “return to the Moon to stay” is all that is needed overcome this problem and make the necessary budgets available. But despite repeated attempts, no mandate for renewed lunar or space exploration has resolved the issue. In short, space exploration is hampered by conventional thinking that assumes massive budgets are needed and that administrations simply need to make them available.

In truth, a number of advances that have been made in recent years are allowing for missions that would cost significantly less. This, and how a lunar base could be a benefit to space exploration and humanity, were the topics of discussion at the 2014 workshop. As NASA astrobiologist Chris McKay – who edited the New Space journal series – told Universe Today via email, one of the key benefits of a cost-effective base on the Moon is that it will bring other missions into the realm of affordability.

“I am interested in a long term research base on Mars – not just a short term human landing,” he said. “Establishing a research base on the Moon shows that we know how to do that and can do it in a sustainable way. We have to get away from the current situation where costs are so high that a base on the Moon, a human mission to Mars, and a human mission to an asteroid are all mutually exclusive. If we can drive the costs down by 10x or more then we can do them all.”

Central to this are several key changes that have taken place over the past decade. These include the development of the space launch business, which has led to an overall reduction in the cost of individual launches. The emergence of the NewSpace industry – i.e. a general term for various private commercial aerospace ventures – is another, which has been taking recent advances in technology and finding applications for them in space.

According to McKay, these and other technological developments will help resolve the budget issue. “Beyond the launch costs, they key to driving down the costs for a base on the Moon is to make use of technologies for sustainability being developed on Earth. My favorite examples are 3D printing, electric-cars, autonomous robots, and recycling toilets (like the blue diversion toilet).”

Alexandra Hall, the former Senior Director of the X Prize Foundation and one of the series’ main authors, also expressed the importance of emerging technologies in making this lunar base functional. As she told Universe Today via email, these will have significant benefits here on Earth, especially in the coming decades where rises in population will coincide with diminishing resources.

“The advances in life support and closed loop living necessary for sustaining life for long periods on the Moon will undoubtedly provide positive spin offs that benefit both the environment and our ability to live with changing climate and diminishing resources,” she said. “If we can figure out how to build structures with what’s already on the Moon, we can use that technology to help us create infrastructure and shelter solutions out of in-situ materials on Earth. If we can use rock that’s right there, perhaps we can avoid shipping asphalt and bricks across the world!”

Another important aspect of making a lunar base cost-effective was the potential for international partnerships, as well as those between the private and public sectors. As Hall explained it:

“While there will be commercial markets for the eventual fruits of our lunar exploration endeavors, the initial markets are likely to be dominated by governments. The private sector is best able to respond in ways that provide cost effective and competitive solutions when governments specify and commit to long term exploration goals. I believe that a Google Lunar XPRIZE win will flush out other private and commercial partners for pursuing a permanent settlement on the Moon, that could eclipse the need for significant government participation. Once a small company demonstrates that it is actually possible to get to the Moon and be productive, that allows others to start to plan new business and endeavors.”

As for where this base will go and what it will do, that is described in the preface article, “Toward a Low-Cost Lunar Settlement“. In essence, the proposed lunar base would exist at one of the poles and would be modeled on the U.S. Antarctic Station at the South Pole. It would be operated by NASA or an international consortium and house a crew of about 10 people, a mix of staff and field scientists that would be rotated three times a year.

Activities on the base, which would be assisted by autonomous and remotely-operated robotic devices, would center on supporting field research, mainly by graduate students doing thesis work. Another key activity for the residents would be testing technologies and program precedents which could be put to use on Mars, where NASA hopes to be sending astronauts in the coming decades.

Several times over in the series, it is stressed that this can be done for the relatively low cost of $10 billion. This overall assessments is outlined in the paper titled “A Summary of the Economic Assessment and Systems Analysis of an Evolvable Lunar Architecture That Leverages Commercial Space Capabilities and Public–Private Partner“. As it concludes:

“Based on the experience of recent NASA program innovations, such as the COTS program, a human return to the Moon may not be as expensive as previously thought. The United States could lead a return of humans to the surface of the Moon within a period of 5–7 years from authority to proceed at an estimated total cost of about $10 billion (–30%) for two independent and competing commercial service providers, or about $5 billion for each provider, using partnership methods.”

Other issues discussed in the series are the location of the base and the nature of its life-support systems. In the article titled “Site Selection for Lunar Industrialization, Economic Development, and Settlement“, the case is made for a base located in either the northern or southern polar region. Written by Dennis Whigo, founder and CEO of Skycorp, the article identifies two potential sites for a lunar base, using input parameters developed in consultation with venture capitalists.

These include the issues of power availability, low-cost communications over wide areas, availability of possible water (or hydrogen-based molecules) and other resources, and surface mobility. According to these assessments, the northern polar region is a good location because of its ample access to solar power. The southern pole is also identified as a potential site (particularly in the Shackleton Crater) due to the presence of water ice.

Last, but certainly not least, the series explores the issue of economic opportunities that could have far-ranging benefits for people here on Earth. Foremost among these is the potential for creating space solar power (SSP), a concept which has been explored as a possible solution to humanity’s reliance on fossil fuels and the limits of Earth-based solar power.

Whereas Earth-based solar collectors are limited by meteorological phenomena (i.e. weather) and Earth’s diurnal cycle (night and day), solar collectors placed in orbit would be able to collect energy from the Sun around the clock. However, the issues of launch and wireless energy transmission costs make this option financially unattractive.

But as is laid out in “Lunar-Based Self-Replicating Solar Factory“, establishing a factory on the Moon could reduce costs by a factor of four. This factory could build solar power satellites out of lunar material, using a self-replicating system (SRS) able to construct replicas of itself, then deploy them into geostationary Earth orbit via a linear electromagnetic accelerator (aka. Mass Driver).

An overriding theme in the series is how a lunar base would present opportunities for cooperation, both between the private and public sectors and different nations. The ISS is repeatedly used an example, which has benefited greatly in the past decade from programs like NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) – which has been very successful at acquiring cost-effective transportation service to the station.

It is therefore understandable why NASA and those companies that have benefited from COTS want to extend this model to the Moon – in what is often referred to as Lunar Commercial Orbital Transfer Services (LCOTS) program. Aside from establishing a human presence on the Moon, this endeavor is being undertaken with the knowledge that it will also push the development of technologies and capabilities that could lead to an affordable to Mars in the coming years.

It sure is an exciting idea: returning to the Moon and laying the groundwork for a permanent human settlement there. It is also exciting when considered in the larger context of space exploration, how a base on the Moon will help us to reach further into space. To Mars, to the Asteroid Belt, perhaps to the outer Solar System and beyond.

And with each step, the opportunities for resource utilization and scientific research will expand accordingly. It may sounds like the stuff of dreams; but then again, so did the idea of putting a man on the Moon before the end of the 1960s. If there’s one thing that particular experience taught us, it’s that setting foot on another world leaves lasting footprints!

Further Reading: New Space

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We Explored Pluto, Now Let’s Explore The Nearest Star!

Artist’s impression of the planet around Alpha Centauri B. Credit: ESO

On July 14th, 2015, the New Horizons space probe made history when it became the first spacecraft to conduct a flyby of the dwarf planet of Pluto. Since that time, it has been making its way through the Kuiper Belt, on its way to joining Voyager 1 and 2 in interstellar space. With this milestone reached, many are wondering where we should send our spacecraft next.

Naturally, there are those who recommend we set our sights on our nearest star – particularly proponents of interstellar travel and exoplanet hunters. In addition to being Earth’s immediate neighbor, there is the possibility of one or more exoplanets in this system. Confirming the existence of exoplanets would be one of the main reasons to go. But more than that, it would be a major accomplishment!

Located 4.3 light years from Earth, the Alpha Centauri system consists of three stars – Alpha Centauri A, B, and C (aka. Proxima Centauri). For many years now, exoplanet hunters have been divided on the issue of whether or not it has a system of planets. This began in February of 2008, when a team of European observers working at the European Southern Observatory‘s La Silla facility in Chile began searching for a possible exoplanet in orbit of Alpha Centauri B – which was designated Alpha Centauri Bb.

Using the Doppler spectroscopy method, they recorded measurements of Alpha Centauri B’s radial velocity and color spectrum over a four-year period. They then applied statistical filters to remove known sources of variance to be sure that what they were detecting was indeed a planet, and not background noise.

In October of 2012, in an article submitted to the scientific journal Nature, they officially announced the existence of Alpha Centauri Bb. According to the team, the planet was similar in mass to Earth and orbited Alpha Centauri B within its habitable zone (aka. “Goldilocks zone”). This made it the closest Earth-like exoplanet discovered to date.

However, three years after the announcement, in October 2015, researchers from the University of Oxford published a paper entitled “Ghost in the Time Series” which indicated that there were flaws in the original analysis. According to the paper, the signal that was observed by the ESO team naturally arose from the “window function” of the original data – aka. it was a ghost signal.

However, in March of 2015, the same scientific team published a paper that proposed the existence of other alien world orbiting Alpha Centauri B. Using data from the Hubble Space Telescope, they discovered evidence of a possible transit in front of the B star. If confirmed, this planet would be called Alpha Centauri Bc, and is apparently located too close to its parent star to support life.

Hence why scientists like Dr. Debra Fischer – a professor of astronomy at Yale University, and a member of the Planetary Society who has discovered hundreds of exoplanets – are advocating for a mission to the Alpha Centauri system. As she told Universe Today via email:

“The Kepler mission demonstrated that almost every star has planets and we have found planets orbiting stars that are in binary systems not too different from Alpha Centauri. It’s a good bet that there are planets there that we just have not been able to find yet, given current precision… It will likely take a spacecraft in a low Earth orbit with sufficient measurement precision to detect small rocky planets in the system.  Once we find them, then we will be highly motivated to send robotic spacecraft to look for life.”

Naturally, sending a spaceship to the nearest star system represents a major challenge. As we explained in a recent article – How Long Would It Take To Get To The Nearest Star? – even with our most advanced technology, it still would take thousands of years to reach Alpha Centauri – between 72,000 and 81,000 to be exact. Considering that 3000 to 4000 generations would pass between launch and arrival, that hardly seems worth it.

Even reckoning for the fastest speed ever achieved by a spacecraft – 240,000 km/hr (150,000 miles/hr), which was accomplished by the Helios 2 probe in the late 1970s – the trip would still take a whopping 19,000 years. In order to make this trip is a single lifetime, during which the spacecraft could reach Alpha Centauri and radio back its findings, something new and experimental would need to be developed.

For decades now, ideas ranging from nuclear-thermal propulsion and solar sails have been considered, and some of these proposals are within the realm of possibility. At the more radical end of things, concepts such as nuclear-pulse spacecraft (i.e. Project Orion), fusion containment (i.e. Project Daedalus, shown above) and fusion ramjets have been suggested – ideas that, while possible, would be incredibly expensive to build.

And whereas some of these concepts are feasible in the near-term (and using current technology) others are still very much in the theoretical phase, like the Alcubierre “Warp” Drive. Others still, such as the Radio Frequency Cavity Thruster (aka. the Cannae, or EM Drive), have been tested, but not to satisfaction of many in the scientific community.

But as Fischer explains, these sorts of challenges have not stopped us before. And there are several options on the table, the development of which could have beneficial applications here on Earth.

“When you study the energy requirements, it is a daunting goal,” she said. “But needing to beat the odds has never stopped us before. We would need to figure out how to accelerate a swarm of networked robotic spacecraft so that they can reach this star system in something like 40 years. “We will have to build receivers with the sensitivity to pick up messages from the Alpha Cen bots. The pathway to solving those questions will have technology spinoffs as impactful as cell phones, lap tops, or GPS.”

Regardless of the destination, any bold new step in the field of space exploration will have to involve serious planning and careful consideration. Now that we have effectively explored the Solar System, reaching beyond will be a major challenge. But as the history of space exploration teaches us, accepting a major challenge is a great way to bring out the very best in us.

Even when the goal seems insurmountable at first glance, working towards it can lead to many great and interesting breakthroughs, some of which have far-reaching benefits. As Fischer added, setting Alpha Centauri as our next goal is every bit as ambitious as our ancestors decision to go to the Moon, and offers similar rewards.

“The exploration of Alpha Centauri is a grand vision for humanity,” she said. “In the 1960’s, we sent Apollo missions to explore the moon, and humanity just took another big leap with the New Horizons mission, traveling to the outermost reaches of our solar system. Sending a mission to Alpha Centauri could be the next big stepping stone.”

Here’s hoping some of our more radical ideas start bearing fruit in the coming years. Otherwise, any missions to Alpha Centauri will be very “slow boat” in nature, and I for one would like to live to see what’s really there!

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Relive Missions to the Moon with Fan Videos Created from NASA’s Apollo Archives

When NASA recently posted over 8,000 images from the Apollo missions on Flickr, I just knew something good was going to happen! There are so many creative people out there that just need a little spark, a little inspiration and they’re off creating wonderful things. Three videos so far have surfaced based on the imagery […]