Moondust, the fine ash-like sand that covers the Moon’s surface has been known to hamper activities on the moon but it may have positive benefits as well. Moondust may play an important role in creating the water, oxygen and fuel that is required for living on the moon. Microwaves, like the one you have in your kitchen, may become standard equipment for moon-dwellers.
The recent discovery of water molecules on the moon has inspired scientists and others to find ways to extract it. One such way is by using microwave energy. Edwin Ethridge of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center believes that heating moondust with microwave energy can cause the water molecules to vaporize. Then, using a cold trap, water vapor can be collected and condensed into liquid. Once purified, water extracted from the lunar surface could be used for a variety of purposes including drinking.
The best place to find water on the moon is near the poles. Average concentrations have been estimated to be more than four percent water over large areas in the Polar Regions. At only two percent concentration that translates to about five gallons of water in a cubic meter of moondust.
Extracting water from moondust can be done on the spot and requires no drilling or excavating. In addition, the water can be converted to other uses. Using electrolysis, the water molecules can be separated into oxygen and hydrogen. The oxygen can then be used for breathing and the hydrogen for fuel. Hydrogen is already in use here on Earth as an alternative to other gases such as liquid propane and natural gas. It is estimated that one ton of water and one ton of oxygen per year would be required for a manned outpost on the moon. Creating these resources on the moon would eliminate the need to transport them from Earth.
Moondust may have other important uses as well. Larry Taylor, professor of planetary sciences at the University of Tennessee, has a few ideas on how to create a solid material out of the moondust. He once put some moondust, brought back from an Apollo mission, into a microwave and found that it melts quickly. Lunar dust contains miniscule particles of pure iron known as nanophase iron. Nanophase metals usually are many times harder than regular metals. The microwave energy causes iron particles to become a coherent mass by heating but without melting them. The resulting solid substance may have a variety of uses on the moon. Taylor imagines an astronaut driving a rover with a buggy attached to the rear. The buggy, fitted with magnetrons, (the tube in a microwave that creates heat), and having the right power and microwave frequency, could create a solid surface behind the vehicle as it moves. Though technical challenges remain, the idea of creating solid materials from moondust sounds very promising.
In the future, we may see many products created from substances found on the moon. Products such as fuel for heat and electricity, building materials, landing pads, roads, radiation shielding, hydrogen, oxygen, water and perhaps, someday, even cheese.