How water could be made on the moon: Scientists discover H2O is created in space when solar winds blast meteorites as they crash

  • Hydrogen and oxygen thrown up by the impact react to form water molecules
  • Scientists did tests on a piece of a meteorite which landed in Australia in 1969
  • In a lab they were able to recreate the process of water forming in a vacuum
  • They say the knowledge could lead to the formation of water on the moon 

Water can be created on asteroids, and maybe even on the moon, by the combination of solar winds and meteorites, scientists say.

A team of researchers has discovered that correctly-timed solar winds can bind together loose hydrogen and oxygen atoms to create H2O.

This process can work even in an airless vacuum, they said, which is important because water is so vital for the survival of living things.

Scientists have long believed meteorites –which often contain the common elements oxygen and hydrogen – were the source of Earth’s water supply, and this research sheds more light on how they could create it elsewhere. 

Researchers from Australia blasted a laser at a piece of an asteroid in conditions which mimicked space and, when they had the heat of a solar wind on them, loose hydrogen and oxygen atoms reacted to produce water molecules (stock illustration of meteorites)

Researchers from Australia blasted a laser at a piece of an asteroid in conditions which mimicked space and, when they had the heat of a solar wind on them, loose hydrogen and oxygen atoms reacted to produce water molecules (stock illustration of meteorites)

The scientists, from Curtin University in Perth, Australia, made their discovery in experiments on a piece of a meteorite which landed in Australia 50 years ago.

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‘This complex process to regenerate surface water molecules could be a possible mechanism to replenish water supplies on other airless bodies, such as the Moon,’ said Dr Katarina Miljkovic, from Curtin’s Science and Technology Centre.

‘This research finding has potentially significant implications because we all know the availability of water in the solar system is an extremely important element for habitability in space.’

The research comes just weeks after researchers revealed they had found evidence of a ‘super Earth’ planet with a lot of water some 110 light years away from us.

That was among one of the most promising signs of other planets being able to spot life that space explorers have ever seen, they said at the time.

Dr Miljkovic and her team, looking on a much more minute scale, explained that electrons – such as those from oxygen and hydrogen – and a sudden change in temperature were necessary for water to be created in the vacuum of space.

For their research they used a sample of the Murchison meteorite, a 220lbs (100kg) space rock which landed in Murchison, Victoria, on September 28, 1969.

They monitored the levels of water molecules on the rock while simulating solar winds and using lasers to mimic small meteorite impacts.

When flying rocks such as meteors and asteroids slam into one another, or other bodies such as the moon, they scatter smashed fragments of the elements they contain around them.

Most are made of minerals which probably have hydrogen and/or oxygen inside them in some form. 

Dr Miljkovic and her team found the impact began a chemical reaction which released free-floating hydrogen and oxygen molecules.

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The combination of this and a solar wind – which can reach temperatures of 1,800,000°F (1m°C) – managed to bind the hydrogen and oxygen together.

This successfully created molecules of water – H2O contains two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen.

Water in the form and quantities that we know it is rare in space – around 71 per cent of the Earth’s surface is covered in it.

Ice, however, is common – Mercury, Mars, Uranus, Neptune, the Moon, Jupiter’s moons Europa, Callisto, Enceladus and Ganymede all contain water ice.

Dr Miljkovic and her colleagues’ work was published in the journal Nature Astronomy.

WHAT EVIDENCE HAS BEEN FOUND FOR WATER ON THE MOON?

A number of researchers have made claims that water may be found on the moon, either above or below its surface or in its soil, by future visitors.

Such discovery could mean future lunar colonies could harvest water on the moon without having to bring it with them from Earth.

They could also convert it into hydrogen and oxygen for rocket fuel or oxygen to breathe, scientists claim. 

In February 2018, a study found by the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado water in the form of OH – a more reactive relative of H2O – all over the lunar surface.

In September 2017, experts created the first map of water and its building blocks trapped in the uppermost portion of the Moon’s soil.

They claimed that water in this form is present nearly everywhere on the lunar surface. 

A separate study that month, showed that the surface of the moon holds more water than we thought.

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It suggests the interior of our natural satellite could hold a deep reservoir of water.

This finding bolsters the idea that the lunar mantle is surprisingly water-rich, which could make colonising it for future space exploration much easier.



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