Tag: moon

Why is Water so Valuable in Space?

Success for human space travel depends on water.

NASA’s big discovery on October 26, 2020 found more water on the Moon than previously known. This is exciting because it means lunar water resources will be easier to access and use.

Key takeaways: Uses for water in Space:

  • Propellant production
  • Radiation shielding
  • Space manufacturing
  • Space agriculture
  • Temperature control
  • Breathing

Any water source means a higher likelihood that humans will be able to sustain a longer visit, thus the goal of establishing a sustainable human presence in outer space by the end of the decade.

Water is as valuable in space as oil is on Earth. – @espressoinsight

The amount of water present on the Moon is equivalent to about 12 ounces per cubic meter of soil, and much of the water is found in the many small craters populating the lunar surface.

This was discovered by the NASA SOPHIA telescope, and other measurement instruments on board a Boeing 747. The curious part is, we don’t know for sure what created the water or how it got to the Moon, but its possible that interstellar radiation could be converting hydroxide ions, OH-, into H2O.

There are TWO articles in Nature that detail the specifics, which I’ve linked to below.

2020 Study 1: Micro cold traps on the Moon

2020 Study 2: Molecular water detected on the sunlit Moon by SOFIA

The abstract for both articles is pretty short and worth a quick glance. If you end up reading them, let me know what you thought of NASA’s discovery.

These discoveries are follow ups to the earlier discovery when scientists first realized water’s presence on the Moon at all. Before the October 2020 discovery, we only knew of water being on the north and south poles of the Moon, which are extremely cold and would be difficult and dangerous for astronauts to reach.

2018 Study: Direct evidence of surface exposed water ice in the lunar polar regions

map of water on the moon
Graphic of water located on the poles of the Moon. Source: https://www.pnas.org/content/115/36/8907

Although these studies have confirmed the presence of water on the moon this year, it isn’t a surprise. NASA evidence for this in 2009 as well, although these studies do have the benefit of solidifying the evidence.

According to the 2009 evidence, the original findings were made by NASA’s Moon Mineralogy Mapper aboard the Indian Space Research Organization’s Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft, and then confirmed NASA’s Cassini spacecraft and NASA’s Epoxi spacecraft.

What is so great about water anyways?

Why is finding water in outer space such a big deal? I mean, comparing it to oil on Earth is a little bit of an exaggeration, right? – Not quite. Water actually is like oil in because it can be used as propellant – a fuel source for rockets or other vehicles.

The Moon will effectively be a galactic gas station – @espressoinsight

How is water used in outer space?

In space, aside from drinking, H2O could be split into pure elemental components hydrogen (H2) and oxygen (O2) and used separately.

This is done through the process of electrolysis, which involves running electricity from solar panels through the water and an electrolyte with an anode and cathode attached, forming a circuit.

Water reacts at the anode to form oxygen and positively charged hydrogen ions (protons). At the cathode, hydrogen ions combine with electrons from the external circuit to form hydrogen.

electrolysis of water
Electrolysis of water. copyright Nevit Dilmen, CC BY-SA 3.0

This is important for propellant production. From pure hydrogen and oxygen, we can create rocket fuel. Since electrolysis is a relatively simple chemical process, anywhere in the universe that hosts water will serve as a galactic gas station, allowing astronauts to re-supply for additional missions.

As Saturn’s moon Titan is also a potential galactic gas station due to its vast abundance of methane and other organic material hydrocarbons, Earth’s Moon is as well for hydrogen / oxygen type rocket fuel.

rocket launch NASA
source: NASA public domain,

With water, fuel cells may also be used to store energy and generate electricity in the absence of sunlight, when we can’t get good solar power.

And then of course, whatever oxygen is not used for fuel can be used for breathing and saving tank space.

Water can also be used for radiation shielding to protect astronauts. We could literally put a water shield around a spacecraft.

As space manufacturing becomes more common, water will be required in a lot of these processes.

Yet another use is space agriculture. Water could often be recycled from whatever plants transpire on their leaves. And one day, when we terraform dry planets, huge amounts of water will be needed.

Temperature control on spacecrafts is also a use for water. The vacuum in space acts like a perfect insulator preventing heat transfer. Water could be used to cool spaceships to prevent overheating.

So, now we know why having access to water in space is a first step toward establishing a space economy, taking civilizations to the next level, and becoming a multi-world species.

“If we can use the resources at the Moon, then we can carry less water and more equipment to help enable new scientific discoveries.” – Jacob Bleacher, Chief Exploration scientist for NASA

Let’s not forget, however, this will be a great and noble challenge for humanity. Procuring water in space isn’t as easy as just digging a well like on Earth. Since its frozen, we have to mine and extract it from asteroids, planets, and moons.

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Saturn’s Moon, Titan

Saturn’s Moon, Titan, is a top space exploration target for humans in our solar system.

Titan: Key Takeaways

  • Temperature is -180 deg. C (allowing Methane to exist in liquid form).
  • Atmospheric pressure is 45% greater than Earth.
  • Titan is 40% the size of Earth.
  • According to NASA, Titan’s crust is made of H20 ice, and has liquid water as well as ammonia ocean beneath the surface.
  • Titan is almost 1 billion miles from Earth.

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Why explore Saturn’s Moon, Titan?

Titan is a rare and unique place for a number of reasons. There are four components of Titan that make it unique and worth exploring.

1. Precipitation

Aside from Earth, Titan is the only place in our solar system that has precipitation based weather systems.

On Titan, precipitation is in the form of liquid methane and other hydrocarbons, as opposed to water like on Earth.

2. Atmosphere

Of the 160+ known moons in our solar system, Titan is the only one that has an atmosphere.

An atmosphere is an important feature because it shields the planet from harmful radiation, which protects anything that may want to live on or near the surface.

Atmospheres also contribute to the greenhouse effect, trapping heat near the surface, allowing temperature regularity. Titan is so cold that it may seem surprising to hear about the greenhouse effect keeping the planet warm. The fact that Titan is so far from the sun means that it simply receives less heat.

source: NASA Cassini

3. Titan’s geological chemistry

Titan has unique chemistry that features an abundance of methane and a nitrogen based atmosphere that is 50% denser than Earth’s. Methane is a molecule that consists of 4 hydrogen atoms bonded to a single carbon, with a relatively low atomic mass, it is normally a gas on Earth at room temperature and standard conditions. Titan’s conditions, however, are cold enough that methane exists in liquid form.

On Titan, the Selk impact crater location features conditions for life as we know it: evidence of past liquid water, hydrocarbon molecules, as well as oxygen, nitrogen, and energy. The crater was likely formed by some sort of asteroidal impact years ago.

Recently, NASA discovered a unique molecule (cyclopropenylidene) within Titan’s atmosphere, that could be a sign of possible life.

This molecule is interesting not only because it is a carbon based molecule – Titan has plenty of those – but that it is a pre-cursor to biochemical processes performed by biological organisms that we see on Earth.

4. Raw Materials

Humans may one day establish establish satellite colonies in order to access these valuable raw materials like methane to use as fuel for rockets and other vehicles.

Titan’s presence of hydrocarbons in such an abundance on its surface as well as atmosphere, makes it attractive as a possible re-fueling destination.

Methane, for example, is a great potential fuel source.

According to SoCalGas, methane produces more heat and light energy by mass than other fossil fuels or hydrocarbons. It produces significantly less carbon dioxide and other pollutants that contribute to smog and unhealthy air.

Methane is lightweight and is more stable than some commonly used rocket propellants such as liquid hydrogen.

Titan is considerably further than our moon as well as Mars. Because of this, sending unmanned robotic missions there takes significant time (Cassini took 7 years, for example) so we should make an effort to do so sooner to accelerate information gathering.

Astronauts may one day be able to use Titan as a layover location, or a type of galactic gas station, similar to the Moon before longer missions.

Therefore, Titan would make sense as one of the first places where humans may want to establish a base – along with the moon and Mars of course.

Exploring Titan

NASA sent the Cassini-Huygens mission to Titan in 2005 and was actually able to send photos back to Earth.

Since that time, no missions to Titan have been carried out. Perhaps the main reason may be NASA’s budget, which is certainly understandable. We have other initiatives like the International Space Station, the Artemis Space mission, and more.

But there’s good news for our future missions to Titan – in 2026, NASA plans to send another spacecraft towards Titan, which should arrive in 2034. The mission is called Dragonfly, and will examine and document potential chemical processes that could be precursors to life. By taking samples, NASA hopes to find evidence of past life, or at least understand how far prebiotic chemistry may have progressed.

As a drone-based vehicle, the Dragonfly plans to travel over 108 miles, visiting destinations such as the Selk impact crater, which has a large amount of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, and oxygen present, as well as evidence of water.

Below are a few pictures of the obscure world from that Cassini space rover, which can be accessed via the Nasa Photo Journal. We notice a few specific features of Titan’s surface. But first, consider joining our email list (we only send 1 email per week).

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source: NASA photo journal
  • We’re able to observe methane lakes on the surface.
  • As the spacecraft descended towards Titan, the picture below was taken. Natural drainage channels look like an area where liquid water once flowed. It’s possible there is a shoreline depicted in the photo as well.
source: NASA photo journal

Below is the first up-close photo of Titan’s surface ever taken. We see chunks of ice, which is evidence of water. the second picture shows globules likely made of frozen water. The clusters here with fewer rocks suggest these may be channels where liquid water once flowed.

source: NASA photo journal

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