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Learning to Live Off the Land – On the Moon
(Image: NASA/Dmitri Gerondidakis)
Forty-three years ago today, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin made history by becoming the first humans to set foot on the moon. Their stay was relatively brief – the Eagle landing craft spent just under 22 hours on the lunar surface. Since then, no human has spent more than three days there.
In that light, the potential for human colonies on the moon may seem somewhat remote. But a nine-day NASA field test being conducted this week could be “one small step” in the right direction.
The tests involve this new lunar rover, Artemis Jr, that’s designed to drill into the moon’s surface and prospect for water, ice and other resources. The rover is being put through its paces at Hawaii’s Mauna Kea volcano, a favourite site for simulated lunar missions. “It’s the perfect lunar analogue, because it has lunar-like soil and terrain features where we can challenge our hardware and can simulate our mission,” says Bill Larson, head of NASA’s In-Situ Resource Utilization team.
About the height of an average human and weighing in at 300 kilograms when loaded up, the rover was designed by the Canadian Space Agency. The NASA science kit the rover is carrying goes by the name RESOLVE, which stands for Regolith and Environment Science and Oxygen and Lunar Volatile Extraction. RESOLVE carries a gas chromatograph, a mass spectrometer, a neutron spectrometer and a near-infrared spectrometer.
None of the Apollo missions discovered water on the lunar surface, but they were limited to sites around the moon’s equator. More recently, orbiting satellites and a NASA probe that impacted near the moon’s south pole have shown that polar regions offer water, as well as resources such as carbon monoxide, ammonia and methane.
Finding water on the moon is about more than providing astronauts with something to drink during their stay. As well as potentially being useful for experiments conducted on the scene, water could be broken down into hydrogen and oxygen, the two major components of rocket propellant. Oxygen would also be useful in maintaining a breathable atmosphere within a theoretical lunar station. NASA has previously calculated that on-site lunar resources could reasonably be expected to generate about 1 or 2 tonnes of oxygen per year, which would be enough to support a lunar base with four to six residents.