The team will be instrumental in looking at the possibility of a “water cycle” on the Moon – water is vital for space travel, because it would provide a ready source of rocket fuel. The planned new US missions, along with others involving the OU, may ultimately pave the way for astronauts to follow in the footsteps of Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and the other 10 people to walk on the Moon’s powdery surface. The OU has joined forces with NASA Goddard Spaceflight Centre to develop an instrument called PITMS, which will monitor the very thin atmosphere near the surface of the Moon.
The instrument will be carried to the Moon in 2021 by a commercially-provided lander as part of NASA’s Artemis program, and are helping develop the PROSPECT Ion Trap Mass Spectrometer (PITMS).
The PITMS instrument will provide an early opportunity to study the dynamic behaviour of water on the Moon today, as well as proving some of the detection technology that will be used by the OU on subsequent missions.
Dr Simeon Barber said: “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.”
The instrument selected by NASA is a variant of OU’s ProSPA mobile laboratory already in development for the European Space Agency and scheduled to land near to the Moon’s south pole on a Russian spacecraft in 2025.
In what is a cold region of the Moon, the scientists expect to find elevated levels of water ice on or below the surface which would be collected by a drill for analysis.
In addition, the OU is collaborating on the LUVMI-X, developing mobile instruments for lunar exploration, led by the OU’s Dr Simon Sheridan, Research Fellow in the STEM faculty, while while Dr Sungwoo Lim, OU Research Fellow in Space Sciences, has developed an industrial microwave to melt simulants of soil from the Moon to test whether such a method could be used to fabricate building components on the Moon.
Over the course of the last decade, Dr Mahesh Anand has led an OU research team who have analysed Moon rocks returned to Earth by the Apollo (NASA) missions in the 1960s and 1970s.
New techniques developed by the OU have found much higher concentrations of water in some rocks than were evident in the original investigations.
The OU, thanks to its expertise and instrumentation, is at the forefront of the search for water on the Moon as well as playing a lead role in steering the strategic way forward for its exploration both now and in the future.
OU scientists also collaborate with UK, European, US, and Russian lunar projects and there are ongoing discussions with China regarding missions and projects.
Dr Barber added: “To properly understand the Moon, we need to visit new places, with new scientific tools. 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.”
Dr Anand, who has published more than 30 scientific papers on Moon rocks and water, said: “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.
“There is definitely a global demand for this as many more powers enter the space race.”
The last manned mission to the Moon was Apollo 17, crewed by Eugene Cernan, Ronald Evans and Harrison Schmitt, which touched down in the Taurus-Littrow valley on December 11, 1972.
Apollo 18, 19 and 20 were also scheduled to head to the Moon, with the latter due to land in July 1974.
However, the Apollo programme was cancelled, largely as a result of budgetary considerations, and these missions never got off the ground.