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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.

"The results are going to help us answer key questions about the physics and chemistry of the moon and about its evolution," said Michael Wargo, an lunar exploration scientist at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Solving moon mysteries could also shed light on the history of the solar system.

"We took this approach to look at the moon through new eyes and at new scales," said NASA's Garvin. "Whenever we've done that in planetary exploration, we've learned new things."

The chief scientist stressed that the Hubble observations will be particularly useful in setting research targets for future missions, such as NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.

That robotic probe, scheduled to launch in 2008, will orbit and map the moon for a year.

President Bush's space exploration plans, announced in January 2004, not only called for manned missions to the moon but a human outpost on its surface. NASA currently plans to return astronauts to the moon by 2018.

Return to Apollo

Scientists used the Hubble Space Telescope to examine lunar areas well-known for their geological diversity. They included the Aristarchus impact crater and the nearby Schroter's Valley. Both lie on the visible side of the moon, which always faces Earth.

Aristarchus is a young crater that formed when an asteroid slammed into the lunar surface several hundred million years ago. The crater is twice as deep as the Grand Canyon and stretches some 26 miles (42 kilometers) across. The chasm allows scientists an important glimpse at cross-sections of lunar geological layers.

Schroter's Valley is a volcanic lava flow feature also known as a rille. Several billion years ago, lava and volcanic ash covered the volatile area with a glassy material.

Hubble also photographed the Apollo 15 and 17 landing sites, where astronauts collected surface samples in 1971 and 1972.

Those samples contained ilmenite, which prompted scientists to look for, and find, much more of the mineral in the area.

Though less dramatic than lunar landings, Hubble's recent UV moon observations were groundbreaking.

Earth-based telescopes cannot observe the moon in UV light because the wavelength is blocked by our atmosphere. Using Hubble's newest, ultra-high resolution camera—the Advanced Camera for Surveys—researchers were able to image UV light reflections as they bounced off the moon's surface. This enabled scientists to identify the telltale fingerprints of specific minerals.

"These observations of the moon have been a challenging and highly successful technological achievement for NASA and the Hubble team, since the telescope was not originally designed for lunar observations," said Jennifer Wiseman, a Hubble program scientist.

Time on the aging Hubble telescope is coveted. So the science team worked quickly. Sixty different exposures were each captured in four seconds or less and often took only a second.

Though the telescope examined the Apollo landing site and found ilmenite in the area, it could not detect any of the descent stage debris left behind by the famous spacecraft over 30 years ago.

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