Status: 02.10.2023, 04:45 a.m.
By: Tanja Banner
The Indian lunar rover "Pragyan" analyzes the lunar soil and finds an element that could be very valuable for space travel in the future.
Bangalore – The Indian mission "Chandrayaan-3", consisting of the rover "Pragyan" and the lander "Vikram", was active on the moon for only two weeks – since then, the lunar rover has not woken up. But the two weeks provide research with a wealth of new information and data. Of the data published so far, an unexpected find at the south pole of the moon is particularly interesting. The "Pragyan" rover has analysed the material on the bottom of the moon, called regolith, and made a surprising discovery: sulfur.
"Planetary scientists like me knew that sulfur was found in lunar rocks and soils, but only in very low concentrations," explains researcher Jeffrey Gillis-Davis on The Conversation. "These new measurements suggest that the sulfur concentration may be higher than assumed." In addition to the sulfur, the Indian rover also found the previously expected elements on the moon: aluminum, calcium, chromium, iron, oxygen, titanium, silicon and manganese, among others.
View of the Indian lunar rover "Pragyan" at the south pole of the moon. (Archive image) © dpa/Indian Space Research Organization/AP/Uncredited
Sulfur on the moon could become important for space travel
As the Indian space agency ISRO announced, it had not been possible to confirm sulfur at the south pole of the moon before the landing of the "Chandrayaan-3" mission. However, the find may be of great importance for space travel, as Gillis-Davis points out: "Sulfur in soils near the lunar poles could one day help astronauts live off Earth."
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The researcher is alluding to so-called "In situ resource utilization" (ISRU) – the use of materials that are available on site. This is an important issue, as it costs a lot of money to move cargo from Earth to space. Back in 2017, experts came to the conclusion that it would cost about 1.7 million euros to fly a brick to Mars. The transport to the moon would probably be a little cheaper – but still disproportionately expensive. That's why research institutions around the world are working on ideas on how to use the resources available on the Moon and Mars.
The Indian lunar mission "Chandrayaan-3" has landed at the south pole of the moon. (Archive image) © Jens Büttner/dpa
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Surprising sulfur discovery on the moon will be important for space travel
Sulfur could play an important role in this, as Gillis-Davis knows. "Using sulfur as a resource, the astronauts could build solar cells and batteries that use sulfur, mix sulfur-based fertilizers, and make sulfur-based concrete for construction." This sulfur concrete would have several advantages over the concrete used on Earth, according to the researcher. "For one thing, sulfur-based concrete hardens in hours instead of weeks and is more resistant to wear and tear. In addition, no water is needed in the mixture, so the astronauts can use their valuable water for drinking, producing breathable oxygen and making rocket fuel."
Until recently, the best-known example of testing the ISRU approach took place on Mars, where NASA used the "Moxie" instrument to test whether oxygen can be extracted from the thin Martian atmosphere. (tab)