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‘Treasure map’ of solid CO2 on Moon could help humans explore the galaxy

The Independent logo The Independent 19/11/2021 Adam Smith
GettyImages-480799638 (1).jpg © Getty Images GettyImages-480799638 (1).jpg

A “treasure map” showing the location of frozen carbon dioxide on the moon could help future astronauts journey further into space.

A recent study published in Geophysical Research Letters suggests that “cold traps” could create solid carbon dioxide which could potentially be exploited to produce rocket fuel, food, and oxygen - with the study itself being called a “treasure map” by its lead author.

While the presence of carbon dioxide ice has not been verified, there are regions on the celestial body where it is perpetually cold, and ice could survive. Some of these areas have not been touched by sunlight for billions of years.

Carbon dioxide and water molecules have also been detected in plumes of debris generated by Nasa tests in 2009.

At certain temperatures in these cold traps, water and carbon dioxide changes state from a solid to a gas through a process called sublimination – and this process can be so slow that ice should accumulate on the moon faster than it disappears.

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Estimates suggest there are 6,000 square miles of water ice traps in the moon’s south polar region, and 79 square miles of traps where solid CO2 could exist.

“These cold traps should really contain CO2,” lead study author Norbert Schorghofer, a planetary scientist at Arizona’s Planetary Science Institute, told Popular Science, but a mission will be required to verify that.

Extracting the CO2 could prove more difficult; future craft will probably find smaller cold traps that were invisible from orbit, but the exact source of lunar carbon dioxide is still unknown.

Scientists estimate that it is likely from deposits left by comets rich in ice, or chemical reactions from those impacts. Trapped carbon dioxide from under the moon’s surface could also slowly be escaping and freezing.

Searching for carbon on the moon could be “like the search for oil was on Earth in the early days,” Schorghofer says, adding that while people were once looking for concentrated hydrocarbons “now we’re looking for concentrated carbon.”

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