Open University partners with NASA on lunar water mission

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Researchers from the Open University (OU) are working with NASA on a new instrument to investigate the behaviour of water on the Moon.

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Set to hitch a ride on a commercial lunar lander in 2021 as part of NASA's Artemis Program, the PITMS instrument will study the very thin atmosphere that exists close to the Moon’s surface. According to Dr Simeon Barber, who is the Open University's lead on the project, this will help establish whether the Moon has a natural water cycle and guide future missions that may seek to exploit lunar water as a resource.

“There is increasing evidence from orbiting probes that water may migrate away from equatorial regions, as visited during the Apollo era, driven by extreme day to night temperature cycles, until it becomes tightly ‘trapped’ at permanent cold polar locations,” said Dr Barber.

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The PITMS instrument (Credit: OU)

PITMS is a variant of the OU’s ProSPA mobile laboratory already in development for the European Space Agency and scheduled to land near the Moon’s south pole on a Russian spacecraft in 2025. In this cold region, the scientists expect to find elevated levels of water ice on or below the surface which would be collected for analysis. ProSPA is being designed to scout the Moon’s surface and investigate if it is possible to extract oxygen from lunar rocks or dust, something that could help sustain a manned presence on the Earth’s satellite.

“To properly understand the Moon, we need to visit new places, with new scientific tools,” Barber continued. “We need to collaborate with partners to obtain the best coverage of the surface, and compare what we find in order to build up a global picture.

“The science we achieve, in particular on the availability of accessible water and oxygen, could help the international community to formulate new ways to explore the Moon and space in a more sustainable manner by using these off-planet resources.”

The Open University is also working on two other upcoming lunar projects, developing mobile instrumentation for the European rover project LUVMI-X, and investigating the potential for microwave heating to melt lunar soil, which could then be used as a building material.

“I think discoveries made in the last five years have made it much more likely that we will see humans going to the Moon for extended periods of time in the not too distant future,” said the OU’s Dr Mahesh Anand, who has published more than 30 scientific papers on Moon rocks and water.

“There is definitely a global demand for this as many more powers enter the space race.”