Thirsty astronauts living on the Moon may be able to extract water from the barren body, thanks to the power of the solar wind, according to NASA.
Scientists have managed to simulate a chemical process that produces water on Earth’s satellite, and all it requires is the steady trickle of energetic radiation particles from the Sun.
As protons in solar wind hit the surface of the Moon, they interact with the electrons to make hydrogen atoms. These atoms then find a way to meet oxygen atoms bound in molecules like silica or aluminium oxide in the lunar soil.
The solar wind also destroys the chemical bonds in these molecules, freeing the oxygen to pair up with hydrogen to make hydroxyl. Hydroxyl molecules, however, need one more hydrogen molecule to turn into water. The next step is to figure out how to get all that hydrogen.
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“We’re trying to learn about the dynamics of transport of valuable resources like hydrogen around the lunar surface and throughout its exosphere, or very thin atmosphere, so we can know where to go to harvest those resources,” said Orenthal James Tucker, a NASA physicist working on the project, on Wednesday.
The simulation could also reveal some of the Moon’s mysteries. Hydroxyl has been detected by many probes, including NASA’s Deep Impact Spacecraft, Cassini, and India’s lunar probe Chandrayaan-1. Scientists aren’t completely sure how the molecules were formed, but the simulation shows that it could be from the particles in the solar wind reacting with ones on the Moon’s surface.
“From previous research, we know how much hydrogen is coming in from the solar wind, we also know how much is in the Moon’s very thin atmosphere, and we have measurements of hydroxyl in the surface,” Tucker said. “What we’ve done now is figure out how these three inventories of hydrogen are physically intertwined.”
By measuring the abundances of each element in the Moon, NASA can work out how much water is available for astronauts in future missions.
“We think of water as this special, magical compound,” said William Farrell, an expert in plasma physics at NASA. “But here’s what’s amazing: every rock has the potential to make water, especially after being irradiated by the solar wind.” ®