Darby Dyar, professor of astronomy and geology at Mount Holyoke College, says the moon is to people today what the New World was to Europeans 600 years ago. “They had been there a few times,” said Dyar, “but it took time to work up the courage to send people there to stay.”
It’s no fantasy. Scientists like Dyar have been working on the prospect of colonizing the moon for decades. “In my lifetime,” she said, “we will establish some kind of permanent station on the moon. Mind you, I plan to live another 50 years!”
Now Dyar is serving on the Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute. The “virtual” part refers to the fact that the monthly meetings and collaboration between team members takes place mostly through video-conferencing.
The project involves nine teams around the country, of which Dyar serves on three. She will be studying minerals on the moon and other airless bodies such as asteroids.
Among her tasks: Figure out how future residents on the moon can get at that chemical compound that is essential to human existence – water. No water, no life.
“The moon is a very dry place,” said Dyar. “That’s why it’s difficult to imagine living on it.”
The challenge is to find out where the water is and how to tap it, said Dyar. “We have to understand how water got to the moon, how much is still there, and how hard it would be to extract water for human consumption for a settlement,” she said.
Some water was formed at the same time as the moon was formed, she said, and is “locked” in its minerals in tiny amounts. It’s a concept that’s hard to understand for people who are used to water flowing freely.
Water would also come from comets that have crashed on the moon. Comets are made of ice, said Dyar, and the heat of the impact melts the ice. Some of the water is preserved in “permanently shadowed craters” where the sun cannot reach it.
“By far the most common way water gets to the moon is by solar wind,” said Dyar. “Solar wind is composed of highly charged particles, some of which are hydrogen ions that bond with microscopic particles. They are spraying the moon all the time, and sometimes they stick.” Hydrogen is one of the components of water – the “H” in H20.
Getting water from moon rocks would involve heating them in a still – a daunting process.
One reason for serious space exploration is global politics. Americans may think the moon is theirs because they were the first to plant a flag on it. No such thing, says Dyar. “Who owns the moon is still up for grabs,” she said.
The Outer Space Treaty of 1967, signed first by the major powers and subsequently by about 100 other countries, governs exploration and use of celestial bodies. Among the rules: No nuclear weapons up there.
Another reason for serious space exploration: “If an asteroid were to hit the earth, people could survive temporarily on the moon,” said Dyar.
She is referring to the kind of asteroid that killed the dinosaurs. “If you read the literature, it’s very pragmatic,” she said. “We all know the U.S. and other countries monitor the skies. What would we do?”
One of the three teams to which Dyar is assigned is based at Stony Brook University in New York. It studies how to extract as much information as possible from very small rock samples from outer space.
Many of the techniques that have been used for such analysis require a pretty big sample,” said Dyar, who serves as co-leader of this team, and a big sample is not always available. Mount Holyoke lab instructor and asteroid expert Tom Burbine is also on that team.
Another team, based at Brown University in Providence, R.I., works on how to identify minerals long-distance from an orbiting spacecraft. Dyar also has a lead role in this one. She and her Mount Holyoke students will train Brown faculty and graduate students on how to use complicated data processing equipment to conduct the research.
Dyar is a spectroscopist, which means that she analyzes of the distinct patterns that light makes when it bounces off surfaces.
The third team project, based at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md., studies how much hydrogen is trapped in minerals on the moon.
Though she holds the august academic title of Kennedy-Schelkunoff Professor of Astronomy at Mount Holyoke, Dyar is as lively and excited as a kid when she talks about her work.
“It’s a fun project,” she said. “You gotta remember—I started working on lunar samples in 1979. I’ve had a lifetime to get used to how amazing this is!”
Read the full story at Mass Live.
Posted by: Soderman/SSERVI Staff
Source: PAT CAHILL/ http://www.masslive.com/living/index.ssf/2014/01/mount_holyoke_professor_part_of_massive_study_of_outer_space.html