Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Oxygen-Rich Soil on Moon

The Moon's surface is covered with oxygen-rich soils, Hubble Space Telescope images show. Planetary scientists believe the oxygen could be tapped to power rockets and be a source of oxygen to breathe for future astronauts.

ORLANDO, Fla.--The moon's surface hasn't been stepped on since the Apollo missions in the 1970's. Now, for the first time in more than 30 years, NASA is going back to the moon.

When the last astronaut took the final step on the moon, many people thought we'd never visit it again. Jim Garvin, a planetary scientist at the NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., says, "We went. We came. We saw. We conquered ... And we left."

Now, planetary scientists are going back, but this time through the eyes of the Hubble telescope. Brand new images show a side of our moon we've never seen.

"This is the first time we've looked at the moon with Hubble's spectacular vision to understand things about the moon that today we haven't fully understood. This is why exploration's so exciting," Garvin says.

The amazing pictures were captured using ultra-violet light reflected off the moon's surface. They reveal signs of oxygen-rich soils that scientists believe can be used to power rockets and be a source of oxygen to breathe for future life on the moon.

Garvin says, "So, finding resources, learning where they are, and how much there are, and learning then how to use them for people and utilization of human beings on the moon -- women and men -- is really our long-term goal."

A goal that may seem like light years away -- but thanks to these helpful images, living on the moon may be a closer reality. "We're going to learn to live there, we're going to learn to put human exploration and robot exploration together," Garvin says.

The Hubble telescope is normally meant to look at objects light years away, and researchers found focusing Hubble on the moon -- a mere 250,000 miles away -- was more challenging than expected.

BACKGROUND: For years, the Hubble Space Telescope has given scientists spectacular photographs of the farthest reaches of space, but recently the telescope turned its attention a bit closer to home, taking images of the moon. These images -- the first taken with ultraviolet light -- reveal new information about the composition of the moon, with implications for future lunar exploration.

HOW HUBBLE WORKS: Hubble has a long tube that is open at one end, with mirrors to gather and focus light to its "eyes" -- various instruments that enable it to detect different types of light, such as ultraviolet and infrared. Light enters the telescope through the opening and bounces off a primary mirror to a secondary mirror, which reflects the light through a hole in the center of the primary mirror to a focal point behind the primary mirror.

Smaller mirrors distribute the light to the various scientific instruments, which analyze the different wavelengths. Each instrument uses the same kind of array of diodes that are used in digital cameras to capture light. The captured light is stored in on-board computers and relayed to Earth as digital signals, and this data is then transformed into images.

WHAT WE CAN LEARN: Astronomers can glean a lot of useful scientific information from these images. The colors, or spectrum, of light coming from a celestial object form a chemical fingerprint of that object, indicating which elements are present, while the intensity of each color tells us how much of that element is present. The spectrum can also tell astronomers how fast a celestial object is moving away or towards us through an effect called the Doppler shift. Light emitted by a moving object is perceived to increase in frequency (a blue shift) if it is moving toward the observer; if the object is moving away from us, it will be shifted toward the red end of the spectrum.

NEW INSIGHTS: Thanks to Hubble's high resolution and sensitivity to ultraviolet light, astronomers are able to search for minerals in the lunar crust that may be critical for establishing a sustained human presence on the moon. These include titanium and iron oxides, both of which are sources of oxygen. Since the moon lacks a breathable atmosphere (as well as water), the presence of such minerals is critical. This new data, along with other measurements will help NASA scientists identify the most promising sites for future robotic and human missions.

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