The Moon may be more habitable and perhaps hospitable to human life than we had earlier believed. This revelation comes to us from the data that ISRO’s Chandrayaan-3 has collected so far.
Ever since the Vikram lander made its historic touchdown on the lunar surface, a constant stream of data and information has been pouring in from both the Lander and the Rover. As per experts, a rudimentary analysis of the data shows that the Moon is much more capable of hosting life, and perhaps even a human colony, than what we have believed so far.
What the variance in temperature reveals
A report by The Hindu highlights that the data collected by Vikram Lander and Pragyan Rover tell a fascinating story that could explain how the Moon can host a human civilization at some point.
One of the most compelling pieces of evidence supporting this idea comes from Vikram Lander. It sent a probe about 10 cm beneath the lunar surface to measure the temperature. The surprising revelation was that while the lunar surface can scorch at temperatures around 50°C, just 8 cm below the surface, it plunges to a bone-chilling minus 10°C. This discovery has some significant implications.
Scientists have long known that the lunar subsurface is frigid due to the Moon lacking an atmosphere. Vikram’s data now confirms that the lunar topsoil acts as a super-insulator.
The need to insulate
In a 2015 paper titled ‘Determination of temperature variation on lunar surface and subsurface for habitat analysis and design,’ researchers Ramesh B Malla and Kevin M Brown from the University of Connecticut mathematically demonstrated that the outermost layer of lunar regolith provides remarkable insulation, causing the temperature to drop significantly within the first 30 cm beneath the surface.
Given that the Moon experiences extreme temperature variations, from scorching heat during the day to cold at night, creating a habitable environment would traditionally require enormous amounts of insulation, which would be a logistical challenge to transport from Earth.
However, Vikram’s findings suggest we can take a different approach when setting up a colony or a refueling station on the Moon.
Simply spreading a layer of processed regolith (lunar soil) over a habitat could keep its occupants comfortably insulated. Malla and Brown also point out that this regolith shielding would benefit from sunlight reflection, raising its temperature and providing a stable environment.
Now that Vikram has shown a significant temperature drop from the surface to 8 cm below, engineers can design habitats accordingly, taking advantage of the regolith’s low thermal conductivity.
In another research paper titled ‘Energy requirements of a thermally processed ISRU radiation shield for a lunar habitat,’ scientists from the Open University in the UK propose setting up MW-scale solar or nuclear power plants on the Moon. These plants would be used to “thermally process” construction materials, including lunar regolith, making establishing a long-term human presence on the lunar surface easier.
Breathable oxygen on the Moon
In addition to these promising developments, the Pragyan rover has confirmed something equally exciting—the presence of oxygen in lunar soil. Using its ‘Laser Induced Breakdown Spectroscopy’ (LIBS) instrument, the Rover analyzed the ground and detected oxygen and elements like sulfur, calcium, iron, chromium, titanium, manganese, and aluminum.
The presence of oxygen in the form of ilmenite means that settlers on the Moon could produce oxygen without relying solely on ice sources, which are not available everywhere on the lunar surface. Ilmenite can be processed to generate oxygen for breathing.
These revelations from both the Lander and the Rover strengthen the field of In-situ resource utilization (ISRU), also known as ‘space resource utilization.’ It underscores the growing possibility of humans utilizing the Moon’s resources to support long-term lunar missions and beyond.