- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Observations by the Hubble Space Telescope have detected rocks on the moon that NASA officials say can be used easily to create oxygen.

The discovery of rocks containing the mineral ilmenite might help lunar exploration by providing astronauts with a source of oxygen.

“The results are going to help us answer key questions when it comes to the moon,” said NASA scientist Michael Wargo. “Questions about the physics and chemistry of the moon and also its evolution. But it’s also going to be important to us as we plan to go back to the moon.”

Scientist Jim Garvin added: “Resources are things we can use to live off the land. Most important is easily or readily extracted oxygen from lunar materials. All rocks contain oxygen, but the most easily liberated are what we’re after.”

Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys, which was installed on Space Shuttle Columbia’s last successful mission in March 2002, used ultraviolet photography to take 60 “snapshots” of the moon over several days in August.

Hubble is designed to view objects in the distant universe that are effectively motionless. In contrast, the moon, a quarter-million miles from Earth, moves across the sky and Hubble had to rotate to track it.

The three sites studied were the Hadley Rille and Taurus-Littrow regions, which Apollo astronauts visited in 1971 and 1972, as well as the Aristarchus crater.

“We’re going to look at the moon and really play a game I like to call ‘CSI does the moon’ through Hubble,” Mr. Garvin said. “We’re going to try to do forensic science using places on the moon we know, two of the Apollo sites particularly noteworthy for their soils. We looked at those as our ground truth.”

Hubble’s ultraviolet cameras were configured to look for specific chemicals, and the observations match the chemical analysis of the rocks that Apollo brought back from the moon.

Ilmenite is a compound of titanium, iron and oxygen.

“Ilmenite is special in the sense it’s relatively easy to break it apart to get to the oxygen,” said Mark Robinson, a professor at Northwestern University. “You want to utilize resources that are there to bring down the cost of going to the moon.”

A 1977 NASA-sponsored study showed how a solar furnace can be used to heat ilmenite to a high enough temperature to release its oxygen. That oxygen can be used for the air the astronauts breathe or can be combined with hydrogen launched from the Earth to create water.

In 2008, a robotic spacecraft, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, is scheduled to be put into the moon’s orbit. It will include instruments designed to measure the moon’s chemical composition and verify the Hubble observations.

NASA officials have said they plan to send manned craft back to the moon by 2018.

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