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Mining the Moon

19 October 2005 (All day)
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Buried treasure. The moon's vast Aristarchus Crater may contain a mineral that can be used to make breathable air and rocket fuel.

The moon's vast Aristarchus Crater may hide minerals that could be harvested by astronauts for oxygen and fuel, NASA scientists said today, but a detailed analysis of the region is not yet ready for prime time. At a press conference at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C., the researchers described using the Hubble Space Telescope to help resolve the controversy and prepare for the agency's next trip to the moon.

A vast plateau punctuated by a crater 42 kilometers wide and 3 kilometers deep, geologists want to peer below the surface of the Aristarchus region to understand the volcanic forces which produced massive plumes of lava for eons. Using Hubble's ultraviolet spectrometer and information gathered by Apollo astronauts to confirm, researchers focused on the area's plentiful supply of lunar ilmenite, a mineral which contains oxygen, iron, and titanium and reveals clues as to how the lunar surface evolved.

But NASA also has more practical aims. The mineral could possibly be used for making air to breathe and rocket fuel, and the agency already has funded efforts in earthbound laboratories to liberate oxygen from ilmenite. But if the percentage of ilmenite locked in lunar rock is low, such extraction likely would prove too costly and complex. Alternatively, high levels could make such extraction very attractive as NASA plans putting humans on the moon by the end of the next decade.

The lunar observations--proposed by former NASA chief scientist James Garvin, now head of science at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland--were unusual, because they did not go through the typically rigorous peer review to gain Hubble time. Instead, NASA for the first time in the Hubble's history appropriated the time. The images gleaned during 12 Hubble orbits were "designed to provide an unusual dual benefit, for lunar science and potential applications for human exploration of the moon," said Jennifer Wiseman, Hubble program scientist. She told Science that this use of Hubble, though unprecedented, is part of a policy allowing the space agency to use the telescope "to benefit wider agency goals."

Carle Pieters, lunar scientist at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, supports the decision. She said the observations provide the first look at the lunar surface in ultraviolet and will provide much needed data on Earth's nearest neighbor. "It's high time we got serious about exploring the character of the moon," she said.

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