How the Moon’s ice craters will power a human colony

Astronauts will be able to harvest the Moon's natural resources to sustain human life.

MICHELLE THALLER: Ferran, your question is: When we have a permanent base on the Moon, where will the astronauts get air to breathe? I'm sure it makes sense to you that air is something that we consume and it would be a lot of effort to actually bring air tanks from Earth and actually launch them up onto the Moon.

One of the questions I can ask you is, where do you think the astronauts are getting air right now to breathe on the International Space Station? We don't actually take up giant tanks of air to the space station. They get it from water. If you run a very strong electrical current through water you can separate it into hydrogen and oxygen. Oxygen, of course, is the most important gas that we need to breathe. So the way the space station gets air is it takes water and breaks it up into those two gases and actually uses the oxygen for people to breathe. Now we could do the exact same thing on the Moon. And so your next question would be, well doesn't it take a lot of energy to bring water up there as well? We would have to bring all these water tanks.

This is one of the reasons we were most excited to find evidence of a lot of ice underneath parts of the Moon. Up by the poles of the Moon there are craters that are very well shaded from sunlight and they get very, very cold and we found evidence of more water in the lunar soil in those craters near the poles than we ever expected. That means if you had astronauts up there and you actually had the bases near the poles of the Moon there would be stores of ice and therefore water that you could actually tap into. You could actually turn that water into air for the astronauts to breathe without ever bringing anything up from the Earth. You could actually be independent on the Moon itself.

And there's another really important thing that you can make out of water by separating it into oxygen and hydrogen and that's rocket fuel. Rocket fuel today, liquid rocket fuel, is the combination of liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. So not only would you have air to breathe from the water, but you could make your own fuel. This is one of the things that we're investigating now, not only colonizing the Moon but also thinking about sending people to Mars. You send people so far away they have to be independent and they even have to make their own fuel to get back. And we think we can do that if we can find water.

One of the great questions is why would there be ice on the Moon? The Moon seems very dry, there's no atmosphere, how could there be water even frozen underneath the soil? Well, we think that what's happened over billions of years is that many different comets and asteroids have collided with the Moon. You can see all the craters on the surface. And asteroids and comets both contain a decent amount of water. Now, most of that water probably just got vaporized and flew off the Moon entirely, but some of it actually turned into ice. And the important thing about these deep craters near the poles is that they are shaded from sunlight. Sunlight would actually just disperse that ice and actually turn it into vapor, but in the dark, shadowy craters the ice accumulates over time and so you actually have a buildup of ice underneath the soil.

  • NASA's Michelle Thaller walks us through what it will take to sustain human life on the surface of the Moon.
  • One way would be to run a very strong electrical current through water, separating it into hydrogen and oxygen. It's how astronauts on the International Space Station currently harvest oxygen to breathe.
  • There's already evidence of ice at the Moon's poles, likely thanks to billions of years of asteroid and comet collisions. All we have to do is harvest it. People on the future Moon base could also use those ice repositories to make liquid rocket fuel.


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An organism found in dirt may lead to an anxiety vaccine, say scientists

Can dirt help us fight off stress? Groundbreaking new research shows how.

University of Colorado Boulder
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  • New research identifies a bacterium that helps block anxiety.
  • Scientists say this can lead to drugs for first responders and soldiers, preventing PTSD and other mental issues.
  • The finding builds on the hygiene hypothesis, first proposed in 1989.

Are modern societies trying too hard to be clean, at the detriment to public health? Scientists discovered that a microorganism living in dirt can actually be good for us, potentially helping the body to fight off stress. Harnessing its powers can lead to a "stress vaccine".

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.