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Space exploration could benefit from moon water

Water on MoonNASA’s discovery of water on the moon, announced this week, has major implications for the future of human space exploration, according to a space expert at Kingston University.

Chris Welch, an expert in astronautics and space systems, said the findings could transform work for astronauts.

“Scientists thought they knew fairly accurately what the surface of the moon was like and these results show that they didn’t — or at least not completely,” Welch said. “Finding so much more water could make living on the moon much easier in the future. Water is very heavy and to have launch it into space  would difficult and expensive. If there is water on the moon — in whatever form — then we have a potential reservoir that could be used for drinking or to make into hydrogen and oxygen which could be used as rocket propellant. Also, of course, we could use the oxygen to breathe.”

Current thinking is that the water comes from particles in the solar wind which is emitted by, and streams away from, the sun continuously, explained Welch, winner of the 2009 Sir Arthur Clarke Award for Achievement in Space Education. The wind strikes the soil on the surface of the moon, which has no magnetic field or atmosphere to protect it, and stimulates chemical reactions in which oxygen atoms in the soil combine with hydrogen nuclei to form water (H2O) and hydroxyl (HO) molecules.

“The water is thought to exist as a very fine film covering the particles of the lunar soil, or as groups of molecules, not as a liquid,” Welch said. “You couldn’t drink it in its current form, but if extracted, then you certainly could. It has been suggested that one cubic metre of soil might provide one litre of water.”

Earlier estimates suggested that there could be more than 300 million tonnes of water ice on the moon and these new results suggest that it could be even more, according to Welch.

“The water is on the main lunar surface which is slightly ‘damp’ soil and rocks,” he said. “These are still much dryer than any on Earth, though. At the poles of the moon, it is thought that water ice may exist in craters that have been in shadow for millions of years and which act as ‘cold traps’ for water vapour that might arrive either from cometary impacts or —  now — from the rest of the surface.”

While groundbreaking, the new findings don’t suggest there is or could once have been life on the moon, Welch said, adding that further research is needed.

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