Microwaving Water from Moondust (w/ Video)

Oct 08, 2009 by Dauna Coulter
Apollo 12 astronaut Alan Bean holds up a thermos full of moondust. Could this be transformed into a thermos of moonwater? NASA scientists are working on it.

NASA is figuring out how to make water from moondust. Sounds like magic? "No magic--" says Ed Ethridge of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center "-- just microwaves. We're showing how microwaves can extract water from moondust by heating it from the inside out."

The recent discovery of water on the Moon's surface has inspired researchers like Ethridge to rev up the development of technologies to capture it. Some of them believe the small amounts of mixed in lunar topsoil are just the tip of the iceberg. If so, Ethridge has figured out a way to retrieve it.

"We believe we can use microwave heating to cause the in a lunar permafrost layer to sublimate - that is, turn into water vapor. The water vapor can be collected and then condensed into liquid water."

This video is not supported by your browser at this time.
10 hour 3D animation showing how a 1KW microwave source entering from the top produces heating in a cubic meter simulated lunar soil. Colored bands represent locations of constant temperature. Credit: Ed Ethridge/NASA/MSFC

"Best of all, microwave extraction can be done on the spot. And it requires no excavation -- no heavy equipment for drilling into the hard-frozen ."

He calls his first mining experiment the "Moon in a bottle."

"We filled a bottle with simulated lunar permafrost [fake moondust containing water ice] and heated it in a microwave oven. The microwaves heated the simulant enough to extract water, even though the soil was as cold as it would be on the Moon."

At least 95 percent of the water added to the simulant was extracted (vaporized out of the soil) with 2 minutes of microwaving.

"And we were able to capture 99 percent of the vaporized water in our cold trap," says collaborator Bill Kaukler of the University of Alabama-Huntsville. "It works."

Then Ethridge and his team moved beyond the oven to beaming microwaves into the simulant - the way it would have to be done on the Moon. The beamed microwaves were absorbed into the soil and heated it sufficiently to extract water.

"This was an important demonstration. We had to make sure the microwaves wouldn't reflect off the surface," Ethridge explains. "It worked beautifully."

What's next?

Ed Ethridge's experimental setup at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

"We've asked for some genuine soil from the Apollo missions," says Ethridge. "We want to test the real thing and calculate how fast the water vapor will come out. That's an important piece of information."

"There are other things we need to know, like how much ice is at the poles, how deep it is, where it is -- is it only in the craters or is it everywhere?" This Friday morning, Oct. 9th, LCROSS (the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite) could answer some of the questions about moonwater when it plunges into crater Cabeus at the lunar south pole to unearth signs of H2O.

If ample water ice does exist on the , how would lunar residents collect it?

"They'd have to beam microwaves into the soil and collect the in a cold trap," he explains. "We want to build a prototype water prospecting experiment to demonstrate the technique we’d like to see used in a lunar water mining facility."

He stops talking, looks up, and smiles. "I'd be willing to go up and set up the first Lunar Works -- if they'd let me."

Source: Science@, by Dauna Coulter

Explore further: Meteorites yield clues to Martian early atmosphere

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Suitcase Science on the Moon

Aug 20, 2007

In October 1963, two cartographers with the Air Force Aeronautical Chart and Information Center saw a strange glow on the moon. Using the 24-inch refractor telescope at Lowell observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, ...

Moon's South Pole: No Evidence For Ice Sheets

Oct 18, 2006

Using the highest resolution radar-signal images ever made of the moon – images from the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Arecibo Telescope in Arecibo, P.R., and the NSF’s Robert C. Byrd Telescope ...

Recommended for you

Meteorites yield clues to Martian early atmosphere

5 minutes ago

(Phys.org) —Geologists who analyzed 40 meteorites that fell to Earth from Mars unlocked secrets of the Martian atmosphere hidden in the chemical signatures of these ancient rocks. Their study, published ...

Let's put a sailboat on Titan

3 hours ago

The large moons orbiting the gas giants in our solar system have been getting increasing attention in recent years. Titan, Saturn's largest moon, is the only natural satellite known to house a thick atmosphere. ...

Image: Rosetta's Philae lander snaps a selfie

3 hours ago

Philae is awake… and taking pictures! This image, acquired last night with the lander's CIVA (Comet nucleus Infrared and Visible Analyzer) instrument, shows the left and right solar panels of ESA's well-traveled ...

User comments : 2

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

sender
not rated yet Oct 09, 2009
I'd like to see them put you at a coastal engineer's doorstep asking about ocean water reclamation facilities for space fountain and beam power technology.

Secondly minaturized plasma turbine systems in conjunction with a microwave pressure centrifuge system would convert some of the thermodynamic energy expended into usable energy.
MekhongKurt
not rated yet Oct 11, 2009
The discovery of appreciable water -- apparently -- on the Moon is really exciting, if confirmed, which I suppose it will be once NASA scientists finish plowing through the data from the twin impacts a few days ago. If there is indeed water there, that sure will change priorities in space exploration, won't it???

More news stories

Let's put a sailboat on Titan

The large moons orbiting the gas giants in our solar system have been getting increasing attention in recent years. Titan, Saturn's largest moon, is the only natural satellite known to house a thick atmosphere. ...

ESO image: A study in scarlet

This new image from ESO's La Silla Observatory in Chile reveals a cloud of hydrogen called Gum 41. In the middle of this little-known nebula, brilliant hot young stars are giving off energetic radiation that ...

Progress in the fight against quantum dissipation

(Phys.org) —Scientists at Yale have confirmed a 50-year-old, previously untested theoretical prediction in physics and improved the energy storage time of a quantum switch by several orders of magnitude. ...