Anybody who has carried water on a long hike knows: Hauling water is exhausting and humans need a lot of it. Escaping Earth’s gravity with enough water to quench the thirst of explorers on the moon, Mars or beyond, is a much bigger problem.
“It all comes from the fact that Earth’s gravity is high, so it’s very expensive and difficult to get things off the surface of the earth – and water is very heavy,” says Amelia Greig, an associate professor at the University of Texas at El Paso.
Greig was recently selected as a NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts fellow for her research into water harvesting on the moon, and I couldn’t resist talking to her about moon water.
As NASA works to land astronauts on the moon to establish a sustained human presence on the silvery orb, engineers are working to solve the water problem. And H2O is not only useful for drinking. It can also be broken apart into hydrogen and oxygen, which could be used as rocket propellant to send explorers further into space to Mars and beyond.
That’s why the various discoveries of water molecules on Mars and the moon over the last decade are potential game changers. In October, a team of scientists presented evidence in the journal Nature Astronomy that there’s more water and ice on the moon than previously thought.
But there’s a problem: The water is difficult to collect. It’s not only frozen but trapped within glassy grains in the lunar soil. What’s needed is a moisture farm like the one Luke Skywalker was raised on.
Scientists are looking at ways of heating the soil to free the water through evaporation. But Greig thinks there might be a more efficient method.
“Heating things up takes a lot of power, and it’s something we really don’t have on the moon’s surface,” Greig says.
UTEP announced last month that Greig’s proposal was one of 15 selected by NASA for funding through its Innovative Advanced Concepts program. The $150,000 Phase 1 grant will fund a feasibility study. If all goes well with that, she could receive a much larger Phase 2 grant.
Over the next nine months, Greig and a team of UTEP students at the university’s Center for Space Exploration and Technology Research, or cSETR, will test the process. I asked Greig to explain it to me as she would to a five-year-old, and it basically involves using high-voltage electric arcs to shatter lunar soil and free the water. The particles blasted from the surface become charged and can be directed with magnetic fields to separate the water from everything else.
The process still requires plenty of power, but Greig believes it will prove more efficient than other methods.
Testing on Earth will involve vacuum chambers, liquid nitrogen, water, electric arcs and a substance provided by the Johnson Space Center that approximates the properties of moon dust.
Ahsan Choudhuri, the founding director of cSETR, was one of El Paso Inc.’s nominees for El Pasoan of the Year in 2018, and the programs and research there is truly impressive. Its graduates are sought after by NASA and space companies. Some work at Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ space company, Blue Origin, which tests its rockets east of El Paso in Van Horn. If you’ve never seen one of the company’s rockets land itself, go watch one of the videos on YouTube now. It’s pretty cool.
cSETR has also attracted professors and researchers from around the world, including from Australia by way of California.
Greig grew up in Tasmania, an island 150 miles south of the Australian mainland, and says she caught the space bug watching science fiction movies and shows with her father as a child, especially Star Trek.
“While there is a lot of interest in space in Australia, and it has increased recently, there isn’t a whole a lot of work in the space industry there,” Greig says.
So, after completing her doctorate, she came to the U.S. to work on space projects. She was in California until she met Choudhuri at conference. He convinced her to visit El Paso and UTEP.
“I just fell in love with the city and the university and its vision,” Greig says.
In August 2019, she started work at UTEP where she has established an electric propulsion research program and helped expand the university’s satellite program.
Then, over a year ago, cSETR also got involved in the development of lunar exploration technology with the Johnson Space Center. Greig’s project is one of a number of moon projects now under way at UTEP.