Oxygen-Rich Moon Minerals May Help Astronauts Breathe

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
October 19, 2005

The Hubble Space Telescope has detected oxygen-rich minerals on the moon that might someday help astronauts become more self-sufficient in space.

The first high-resolution ultraviolet (UV) images ever taken of the moon have identified several promising deposits of ilmenite. The mineral could provide a crucial oxygen source for future manned lunar missions.

Ilmenite is composed of titanium and iron oxide, or rust, and contains oxygen that is relatively easy to extract.

Titanium oxide is found on Earth in mountain ranges and sedimentary deposits. On the moon, the compound could be converted for use in breathing apparatus and for producing power sources such as rocket fuel.

Speaking at a press conference today, Jim Garvin, chief scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, said, "Our initial findings support the potential existence of some unique varieties of oxygen-rich glassy soils [in certain lunar regions]."

"They could be well-suited for visits by robots and human explorers in efforts to learn how to live off the land on the moon," he added.

Oxygen Mining

Because the moon has no atmosphere, astronauts or robots searching for oxygen must find it within the surrounding rock and soil of the dusty lunar surface.

There are several known ways to extract oxygen from ilmenite. Researchers have used electric current, heat, and other gasses.

Scientists don't yet know which method might prove most effective in the lunar environment, but say the possibilities are exciting.

The presence of ilmenite is only the first in what scientists hope will be many new revelations provided by the UV images.

It will be months before researchers complete their analysis. But the new data, combined with previous observations, will help scientists gain more insight into Earth's closest neighbor.

Continued on Next Page >>


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