Space & Innovation

NASA to Make Water on the Moon and Oxygen on Mars

In an effort to exploit in-situ resources on the moon and Mars, NASA is designing instruments that could aid future manned missions to both destinations.

NASA is planning missions to demonstrate how to make water on the moon and oxygen on Mars.

The initiatives are part of an evolving space exploration strategy that relies on indigenous resources, primarily to make rocket fuel for the return trip home.

Studies show the most viable options for future human expeditions to Mars -- as well as Mars sample return missions -- require what is known as "in-situ resource utilization," or IRSU, to save the enormous costs of launching everything from Earth.

PHOTOS: Epic Views of Apollo's First Moon Rover

"Every pound that you don't have to launch from the Earth of dumb mass -- things like water and air and propellant -- means that you can add a pound of intelligent mass -- an experiment, a computer, something designed to accomplish some job or give us some capability," lunar geologist Paul Spudis, with the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, told Discovery News.

"Doing ISRU gives you incredible leverage because you're changing the fraction of intelligent-to-dumb mass on your spacecraft in favor of the intelligent part," he said.

The first in-space ISRU test is targeted for 2018. NASA plans to launch a mission called Resource Prospector that includes a rover with instruments to scout for telltale hydrogen, drill out samples, heat them and scan for water vapor and other volatiles on the moon.

PHOTOS: Apollo 18: Myths of the Moon Missions

Vapor also could be re-condensed to form a drop of water.

"A lot of the technologies have broader use than just lunar ... it's just a convenient location to be testing the ISRU technology," said Jason Crusan, director of Advanced Exploration Systems at NASA headquarters in Washington DC.

A second ISRU experiment is due to be aboard NASA's next Mars rover, which is slated for launch in 2020. The device, which has yet to be selected, would pull carbon dioxide from the planet's atmosphere, filter out dust and other particles and prepare the gas for chemical processing into oxygen.

The demonstration also could include actual oxygen production.

Moonwalkers: Stunning Photos from Apollo 11

"It's basic chemistry," Spudis said. "The real issues are not the basic process. The issues are what are the unforeseen things about the environment, about being in space, being on the moon, being on Mars, that we don't know or we don't anticipate that are going to impact that production."

If successful, scientists hope ISRU technologies will evolve past demonstrations and into operational missions.

"There's an inherent risk of putting ISRU in the critical path of mission success, so it's been stated that you need to do demonstrations. That said, a lot of times funding is associated only with things that are in the critical path for human missions. So we've been kind of in a catch-22," said Gerald Sanders, who oversees ISRU programs at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston.

"The important of a mission like Resource Prospector or the Mars 2020 (ISRU demonstration) is that it kind of breaks that cycle, the paradigm," he said. "If it pans out, you can start seriously thinking about how you would change your exploration approach."

NASA astronaut Jack Schmitt digs and rakes out material in the lunar surface during the 1972 Apollo 17 mission. Could future missions sieve this material for water vapor and harness it in a useful, liquid form?

On July 16, 1969, Commander Neil Armstrong, Lunar Module Pilot Buzz Aldrin and Command Module Pilot Michael Collins launched atop a Saturn V rocket toward the moon. The 8-day NASA mission captivated the planet as Armstrong and Aldrin explored the lunar surface on July 20, supported by Michael Collins who orbited overhead. 46 years after the first successful landing of the Apollo program, we've dug into the NASA archives to find some familiar and some not-so-familiar views of the Apollo 11 mission. All photos and captions can be found in

NASA's Human Spaceflight Gallery

.

Neil Armstrong leads the way across Pad A, Launch Complex 39 at Kennedy Space Center, Fla., during the Apollo 11 prelaunch countdown on July 16, 1969. Michael Collins follows behind.

The massive 363-feet tall Apollo 11 launched at 9:32 a.m. (EDT) on July 16, 1969, carrying Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins into the history books.

This photo was taken from a door-mounted camera on a U.S. Air Force EC-135N aircraft shortly after launch. The Saturn V second and third stages separate from the spent first (S-1C) stage, which then dropped into the Atlantic Ocean. Recently, the first stage engines were retrieved from the ocean floor by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos.

Earth is captured through the Apollo astronauts' camera lens on the way to the moon.

Earth shrinks as Apollo 11 continues its journey.

Aldrin looks into the TV camera during the third broadcast from space on the way to the moon.

The Apollo 11 Command and Service Modules (CSM) are photographed from the Lunar Module (LM) in lunar orbit during the Apollo 11 lunar landing mission.

After descending from the lunar module after a successful landing on July 20, 1969, Armstrong makes a bootprint in the loose lunar regolith. The astronauts' bootprints remain untouched on the dusty surface to this day.

Aldrin descends the steps of the Lunar Module ladder as he prepares to walk on the moon.

Armstrong and Aldrin deploy the American flag outside the lunar module "Eagle" at Tranquility Base in the Sea of Tranquility on July 20, 1969.

Aldrin prepares to deploy experiments on the lunar surface next to the large lunar module, "Eagle."

Aldrin oversees the deployment of the Early Apollo Scientific Experiments Package (EASEP), photographed by Armstrong during the crew extravehicular activity (EVA).

Aldrin stands next to one of the lunar module legs.

Armstrong inside the lunar module just after his famous moonwalk.

Collins photographs the returning lunar module with Armstrong and Aldrin inside. Soon after, the lunar module docked with the orbiting Command and Services Modules to begin the journey back to Earth.

Aldrin illustrates the gyroscope principle under zero-gravity conditions using a can of food in front of the TV cameras as the crew travel back to Earth from the moon.

The three Apollo 11 crew men await pickup by a helicopter from the USS Hornet, prime recovery ship for the lunar landing mission, after a fiery reentry and splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.

Mission Operations Control Room in the Mission Control Center, Building 30, Manned Spacecraft Center (MSC), showing the flight controllers celebrating the successful conclusion of the Apollo 11 lunar landing mission.

The Apollo 11 spacecraft Command Module and the Mobile Quarantine Facility are photographed aboard the USS Hornet.

Left to right: Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins, in a 21-day quarantine, are greeted by their wives.

New York City welcomes Apollo 11 crewmen in a showering of ticker tape down Broadway and Park Avenue in a parade termed as the largest in the city's history on Aug. 13, 1969.