Aug 18, 2020 - Science

Spacecraft exhaust could complicate lunar science

The moon

The Moon above Earth's atmosphere. Photo: NASA

Increased activity on the Moon could make it harder for scientists to study lunar ices that may hold clues to the origins of water in the solar system.

What's happening: With NASA's Artemis program and other space agencies aiming for the Moon, the lunar surface could become a very crowded place in the coming years. Scientists are now working to parse out any unintended consequences of that exploration.

Driving the news: A new study published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets found that water vapor emitted by spacecraft landing on the Moon could contaminate pristine ice thought to be billions of years old in shadowed craters.

  • Computer simulations revealed that water vapor exhaust released by a lander takes about three hours to be distributed around the Moon and about 30%–40% of the exhaust remained in the thin lunar atmosphere and on the surface for at least two months, according to the study.
  • Scientists expect about 20% of that vapor would freeze near the poles.

Between the lines: As more countries start aiming to send spacecraft and even people to the Moon, that exhaust could prove a challenge for scientists, however, the benefits of human exploration may outweigh worries about lunar exhaust.

  • If researchers know exactly what kind of exhaust is being emitted by these spacecraft, they should be able to correct for it when studying pristine ice, NASA lunar scientist Noah Petro, who wasn't involved in the new study, tells me.

Background: Scientists have been studying the possible effects of spacecraft exhaust on the Moon for years, and the lunar surface has already been contaminated by previous missions like Apollo.

  • “Exhaust during the Apollo mission didn’t complicate measurements in the same ways that it might now,” Parvathy Prem, an author of the new study said in a statement.
  • The Apollo missions were primarily focused on collecting rock samples, while today's scientists are interested in sampling ice and other volatile materials as well.
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