The Moon Is Bursting With Precious Titanium

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The discovery was made thanks to a camera aboard the US Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, which swept the surface of the Moon, scrutinising it in seven different light wavelengths.
NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University

THE GIST

— New maps show rich abundances of titanium in the solidified lava flows on the moon.

— The element is mostly found in a mineral that also contains iron and oxygen.

— Titanium deposits, which could be mined for future use, also reveal history of moon's volcanic eruptions.

Lava flows that turned into rocks on the moon are enriched with titanium in concentrations far higher than what is found on Earth. The precious material could be used to construct equipment for lunar and other spacecraft.

Detailed maps from a robotic NASA science satellite circling the moon show deposits as rich as about 18 percent, planetary geologist Jeffrey Gillis-Davis, with the University of Hawaii, told Discovery News.

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"Up to 3 percent is considered high on Earth," he said.

Why parts of the moon are so flush with titanium is a bit of a mystery, but scientists are taking advantage of the find to figure out the moon's volcanic history. As the moon cooled and solidified, some elements, like titanium, didn't mix well so they formed as a separate layer inside. The titanium was later tossed onto the moon's surface during volcanic eruptions.

"I can identify all these different lava flows because they have a different composition, and that different composition is likely reflecting different sources within the mantle that it came from," Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter associate project scientist Noah Petro, with NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., told Discovery News.

Prized on Earth for its strength, ability to resist corrosion and light weight, titanium on the moon, which is mostly found in mineral called ilmenite, could be mined and processed for future use.

The compound, which contains titanium, iron and oxygen, could be heated to free the oxygen so it could be used for breathing or making rocket fuel. It also is studded with particles from the solar wind, including hydrogen and a rare form of helium, called helium 3, a fuel for a proposed fusion reactor.

"One of the things you want to do before you go back to the moon is figure out where your resources are and what your resources are," Gillis-Davis said.

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Scientists' first confirmation that titanium exists on the moon came from analysis of the samples brought back by NASA's Apollo missions. Six landings occurred between 1969 through 1972. Two previous robotic probes, Clementine and Lunar Prospector, added a global perspective. Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, or LRO, is making maps using a different imaging technique and with higher resolution than previously possible.

The spacecraft currently is orbiting 50 kilometers (31 miles) above the moon. At the end of the year, LRO will be shifted into an elliptical, fuel-saving orbit that drifts as far as 130 miles from the moon. The team is expected to submit a proposal to extend operations beyond 2012.

The research was presented at the European Planetary Science Congress in France last week.