A child's trick could turn the Moon into a water source for humans: but there's a problem

Dmytro IvancheskulNews
Getting water on the moon may not be that hard. Source: Andrew McCarthy/NASA/collage by OBOZREVATEL

Water, which is one of the most important resources for the existence of complex life forms (at least on Earth), is quite rare in our solar system, which poses a challenge for future space travel. But this problem can probably be solved by using a childish trick that will allow us to get water in liquid form on the Moon, Mars, and other planets.

According to an article by Universe Today, the concept of thermal extraction was invented by George Sowers, a space resources expert and professor of mechanical engineering at the Colorado School of Mines (CSM). His idea is extremely simple - you just need a large enough magnifying glass or mirror.

There are two problems for space travel - water and air, which astronauts will need on other planets. Although both of these problems can be reduced to one, as humanity is able to easily convert water into oxygen. So in fact, the biggest unsolved problem is water. It's heavy, so you can't just load it into a rocket and take it with you.

But, according to scientists, there may be a fairly simple solution to this problem. Humanity knows that water in the form of ice is definitely present on the Moon, Mars, and beyond. So Sowers proposed the simplest solution: why not use a relatively large mirror to direct the sun's ray onto the ice and evaporate it? Most of us have played with magnifying glasses as children and know that by concentrating the beam in this way, we can light a fire or engrave our initials on wood. It works a little differently with a mirror, but the effect is the same - heating the ice.

However, simply heating the ice and letting it evaporate is only part of the plan.

If you heat an area that contains ice that is in a vacuum, that ice will sublimate into water vapor and begin to escape from the surface. Sowers proposes to capture this water vapor with a cold trap or other similar mechanism, and then collect the water, which can be used for drinking, converting it to oxygen, or even fueling rockets.

So the whole idea consists of three components:

  • a heliostat, a mirror that can follow the Sun without losing its rays;
  • a giant tent that will collect freeze-dried water;
  • a cold trap/transportation system that will capture water flowing from the surface.

The big advantage of this idea is that these are not high-tech inventions that will take years to develop. But the effectiveness of such a system still needs to be tested and proven.

Sowers and his team suggest that, in addition to the Moon, this technology could work on Mars, where the presence of water ice has been repeatedly proven; Ceres, which has jets of water vapor ejected from its surface; and two main-belt asteroids, 24 Themis and 65 Cybele, both of which are believed to be covered in ice.

But the Moon is still the most promising. It is believed that the permanently shadowed regions of the Moon contain a significant portion of the Earth's 600 billion kilograms of water.

Sower's team has already tested their method on lunar regolith, in which pieces of ice were manually hidden and then placed in a vacuum chamber that was cooled by a bath of liquid nitrogen.

It was during this test that two problems were identified.

The test setup was relatively small, so the liquid nitrogen cooling system was very close to the sample to be heated. As a result, it turned out that most of the heat that was supposed to heat the sample was heating the liquid nitrogen. However, the scientists are convinced that this would not have happened on the Moon, as everything is too cold there, so the heat would have gone exactly where it was needed.

Another problem turned out to be more complicated. In a relatively short time, the thermal mining method created a dried layer on top of the regolith that acts as a thermal barrier to water that might be trapped below. This layer not only prevented heat from penetrating, but also prevented the water, which turned into steam, from rising to the top, where it would be collected by cold traps. However, Sower is convinced that this problem can also be overcome.

Traditionally, the biggest problem has been convincing officials that the financial costs of such water extraction would make sense. Sowers estimates that the entire operation will cost $880 million, with another $613 million in production costs.

Sowers admits that the business case is one of the riskiest parts of his idea because it requires a demand that doesn't currently exist. But that could change when NASA sends the Artemis mission to the moon.

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