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Finding water on the moon has major implications for human space exploration
24 September 2009
The discovery of large quantities of water on the moon will have very significant implications for human space exploration, according to Kingston University space expert Dr Chris Welch. The findings by NASA, which have been hitting the headlines today, were reportedly made after researchers examined data from three separate missions to the moon.
Dr Welch, astronautics and space systems expert at Kingston University London’s Faculty of Engineering, 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,” Dr 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, Dr Welch, winner of the 2009 Sir Arthur Clarke Award for Achievement in Space Education, explained. 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, he said.
“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,” Dr Welch explained. “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, Dr Welch said. The water is not in the form as we know it on Earth. “The water is on the main lunar surface which is slightly 'damp' soil and rocks,” Dr Welch 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, Dr Welch does not believe the new findings show there is or could once have been life on the moon. He now thinks further research is needed. “There need to be more detailed science missions, preferably with astronauts landing on the moon, to analyse the soil in space. On October 9 NASA LCROSS spacecraft is due to carry out two impacts on polar craters to see if it can throw up evidence of water ice.”
Dr Welch has been teaching astronautics at Kingston University, in South West London, for 20 years and earlier this year was honoured by the UK national student space society UKSEDS. He was also a finalist in the competition to be the UK’s first astronaut in 1989, when Helen Sharman from Surbiton was chosen. In 2004 Dr Welch reached millions as an advisor on the BBC series Space Odyssey: Voyage to the Planets. This summer he spent three weeks at the NASA Ames Research Center in California working with graduates and young space professionals, including a Korean astronaut, to explore how space can help solve the world’s energy crisis.