Scientists Detect Solar Hydrogen Trapped in Lunar Dust

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The recent identification of hydrogen in lunar rocks from the Apollo missions introduces a new dimension to the potential exploitation of space resources. Conducted by researchers at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory (NRL), this discovery suggests the possibility of extracting water from the Moon to convert it into fuel (hydrogen) and for other purposes, thereby facilitating extended space missions and the establishment of autonomous lunar bases.

In the context of establishing a sustained human presence on the Moon, NRL researchers conducted a detailed analysis of lunar rocks brought back during the Apollo missions. They identified a form of hydrogen termed “solar wind hydrogen.” This designation refers to the hydrogen incorporated into the lunar regolith by the solar wind, a stream of charged particles emanating from the sun.

The publication of these findings in the journal Communications Earth & Environment underscores the significance of this discovery. Hydrogen being a fundamental element for water formation, its substantial presence on the Moon could redefine future missions. This implies that water, crucial for life and space activities, could potentially be produced directly on the Moon, reducing dependence on water supplies from Earth and enhancing the sustainability of lunar operations.

Innovations in Lunar Sample Analysis

Space-altered apatite vesicular rim.
Space-altered apatite vesicular rim. In c, comparison of mineral-poor apatite rim and vesicles, in contrast to the portion below. Image: K. D. Burgess et al. 2023

To detect hydrogen in lunar samples, researchers utilized various techniques. Firstly, transmission electron microscopy (TEM) allowed for the observation of microscopic details in lunar rocks. This technique involves bombarding a sample with an electron beam to obtain high-resolution images of its internal structure. Through TEM, scientists could distinguish vesicles, small cavities formed in minerals, crucial for precisely locating where hydrogen was present in the samples.

Additionally, electron energy loss spectroscopy (EELS) was used to analyze the chemical composition of the samples. By measuring the energy that electrons lose after interacting with the sample, this method makes it possible to identify various elements, including hydrogen. Combining the results of TEM and EELS confirmed the presence of hydrogen in the vesicles of lunar samples.

Simultaneously, researchers focused on studying spatial alteration, a process whereby lunar and asteroidal surfaces interact with the space environment. Understanding how these interactions affect the lunar surface will aid in better assessing lunar resources and planning their sustainable use, especially for water and fuel production for future space missions.

Toward a Future of Sustainable Exploration

Confirming the presence of hydrogen on the moon is a crucial milestone for establishing sustainable lunar bases. Hydrogen, a key element for water and fuel production, could enable the establishment of autonomous life support systems on the Moon. Future lunar bases could potentially generate their own water by extracting hydrogen and combining it with oxygen, either through chemical processes or electrolysis. This ability to produce water on-site would significantly reduce dependence on water supplies transported from Earth, a major limiting factor in current space mission projects.

Katherine D. Burgess, a geologist at the NRL’s Materials Science and Technology Division, states, “Hydrogen has the potential to be a resource that can be used directly on the lunar surface when there are more regular or permanent installations there. Locating resources and understanding how to collect them prior to getting to the Moon is going to be incredibly valuable for space exploration.

In 2020, observations by SOFIA, a now-retired airborne infrared telescope, revealed that water on the Moon could be more widespread than previously thought, existing in the form of ice on the surface, not just in constantly shaded areas near the lunar poles.

It’s worth noting that the lunar rock samples collected by the Apollo missions came from regions near the lunar equator, not the South Pole, where many long-term exploration projects are envisioned. The researchers emphasize in their recent study that these recent discoveries raise important questions about the stability and lifespan of molecular hydrogen in lunar regions far from the poles.

Furthermore, this discovery has the potential to radically transform the planning and execution of space missions. With the prospect of harnessing lunar resources, including hydrogen for water and fuel, space agencies could contemplate more ambitious and sustainable missions at reduced costs. This could involve prolonged stays on the Moon, manned journeys to Mars, and even the establishment of human colonies in space. Additionally, the in-situ availability of resources could stimulate research and the development of new technologies for space exploration.