Science & Technology

Scientists Released Water From Moon Dust Using Lasers

Pew pew! Turns out an easy way of getting water out of moon dust is to use lasers. Researchers bombarded a sample of olivine — a mineral commonly found on the moon — with radiation and heating in an attempt to get the water out but found the easiest solution is lasers. So, future moon explorers, don't forget your ray gun.

Where Did the Water Come From?

It wasn't so long ago that we thought the moon was bone dry. Apollo astronauts visiting our celestial neighbor 50 years ago didn't see any obvious signs of water on the surface, and their rock samples (examined by the high-tech equipment of the day) also showed nothing.

But our technology improved and instruments got more sensitive. The first firm confirmation of water came in 2008 from an Indian spacecraft called Chandrayaan-1, which spotted evidence of water after an impact probe hit the surface. Today, probable tracts of water ice are recorded in NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter maps — although it's still unclear how much ice there is and whether it can sustain a permanent settlement. Most of the ice appears to lurk near the poles in permanently shadowed craters, which are sheltered from the worst of the sun's heat.

The next logical question is where this water comes from, and how it survives on the moon — a body with a tenuous atmosphere that has one side unprotected from the sun's radiation. Maybe comets brought it. Or perhaps, funny enough, the sun was responsible itself. It sounds counterintuitive that the hot sun should produce water, but it all has to do with the solar wind. That's a constant stream of irradiated particles streaming from the sun and through the solar system.

A new study suggests that the combination of protons (or hydrogen atoms without electrons) in the solar wind hitting the oxygen in moon rock minerals would be enough to produce the magic hydrogen-oxygen combination you need to make water: H2O. This water would then release and collect in the moon's tenuous atmosphere, also known as the exosphere.

Getting the Water Out

So how do we get the water out of those rocks? The research team ran a series of experiments to try their best. They put powdered olivine crystals in a vacuum chamber and cooled them to 10 degrees Kelvin (negative 263 degrees Celsius or negative 442 degrees Fahrenheit) to make sure the water would build up to a level the instruments could detect.

Then came the fun stuff. They tried simulating 300 years of solar wind by bathing the rocks in radiation, then heated the rocks up to 300 degrees Kelvin (27 degrees Celsius or 80 degrees Fahrenheit) to get the water out. Other studies found water at this point, but not this team. The researchers suggest that perhaps other studies were accidentally measuring water from Earth's atmosphere lingering in the vacuum chamber.

Undeterred, the researchers tried playing around with their experiment parameters, such as using deuterium (a heavier form of hydrogen) to irradiate the rocks. But the way they finally extracted the water was by using a laser. Bursts from a laser actually do replicate something that happens on the moon: the impacts of micrometeorites. These are tiny space rocks that smash into the moon from time to time and suddenly heat up the lunar surface. So it turns out while the solar wind probably played a role in depositing water on the moon, it would take a sudden violent event — or an enterprising astronaut — to get the water out.

This does give hope for future space crews looking to extract water from the lunar surface, as long as there's enough of it there. And with NASA planning to send people back to the moon as early as 2024, building a sustainable community that can "live off the land" will be easier than having to truck everything from Earth. So let's hope that there's abundant water available — as well as a healthy stock of laser guns.

Correction 10/2/2019: An earlier version of this article stated that Apollo astronauts visited the moon 15 years ago. That should, of course, be 50 years ago. The article has been corrected.

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Real moon rocks are hard to come by, but you can get the next best thing in this Moon Rock Kit. It comes with six hand samples of rocks and minerals similar to those you'd find on the moon. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Elizabeth Howell May 24, 2019

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