Chang’e-5 mission discovers indigenous glass fibers on the moon

NASA’s Artemis Program aims to send astronauts to the moon for the first time in over 50 years. Their goal is to establish infrastructure that enables sustained lunar exploration and development. Similarly, the European Space Agency (ESA) plans to create a moon Village as a successor to the International Space Station (ISS), while China and Roscosmos intend to construct the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS) near the lunar south pole. All these agencies are focused on utilizing local resources through in-situ resource utilization (ISRU) to meet their construction and long-term needs.

A groundbreaking study led by researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) Institute of Physics (IOP) in Beijing has identified indigenous glass fibers on the moon for the first time. These fibers, discovered in samples brought back by the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program’s Chang’e-5 mission, are believed to have formed through past impacts in the region and could serve as an ideal building material for future lunar bases.

The research team, consisting of scientists from various institutions such as the University of Chinese Academy of Sciences (UCAS), Songshan Lake Materials Laboratory, Qian Xuesen Laboratory of Space Technology, China Academy of Space Technology (CAST), and Nanjing University, published their findings in a paper titled “Diverse glasses revealed from Chang’E-5 lunar regolith” in the National Science Review.

Lunar glasses play a crucial role in lunar soils, representing different formation processes. The team identified five types of lunar glasses based on their formation: volcanic, impact, adhered, deposited, and irradiated glasses. These glasses can remain stable for billions of years, providing insights into the moon’s geological history and contributing to a better understanding of its formation and evolution. The research also addresses questions regarding the duration of volcanism, the Late Heavy Bombardment, the origin of lunar water, and the existence of a lunar magnetic field.

The team’s investigation revealed that impacts are the most active processes on the lunar surface, occurring in a highly heterogeneous manner across different temporal and spatial scales. Unlike volcanism and other geological activities that ceased billions of years ago, impacts continue to shape the moon’s surface. By studying the diverse glasses found in the lunar regolith returned by the Chang’E-5 mission from the northern mare region Oceanus Procellarum, the researchers were able to identify three main mechanisms behind their formation: impacts, deposition, and irradiation.

The samples collected by Chang’E-5 differed significantly from those obtained during the Apollo and Luna missions, suggesting different geological mechanisms at play in Oceanus Procellarum. The CE-5 samples were collected from the youngest lunar region dated to 2.0 billion years ago and beyond, covering mid-to-high latitudes. This extended spatiotemporal range allows for a comprehensive study of the moon. Initial analyses indicate that the CE-5 samples are mature but contain a significantly lower glass content of 8.3%–20.0% compared to the Apollo samples (25.4%–72.3%). This disparity implies a distinct space environment in the Apollo landing sites versus the Chang’E-5 mission area.

In summary, the research conducted by the Chinese Academy of Sciences sheds light on the presence of indigenous glass fibers on the moon, with potential applications in future lunar base construction. It provides valuable insights into lunar geological processes, extending our knowledge beyond what was learned from previous missions. These findings contribute to the ongoing efforts of space agencies worldwide in establishing sustainable lunar exploration and utilizing local resources for long-term space missions.

Schematic of the origins of diverse lunar glasses and the corresponding lunar activities. Credit: Laiquan Shen, R.Z. et al. (2023)

Through detailed characterization of the lunar samples, the research team identified a variety of glassy materials present in the CE-5 samples. They observed different shapes of glass particles, including globules, ellipsoids, dumbbells, and teardrops, as well as elongated glass fibers resembling tadpoles, maces, and filaments. The team concluded that these fibers were formed by molten materials generated from impacts, which subsequently solidified upon contact with the lunar environment.

The presence of these indigenous glass fibers on the moon holds great potential for their use as a construction material, aligning with the concept of in-situ resource utilization (ISRU) for lunar base development. The researchers highlighted the limitations of previous attempts to create artificial glass fibers from lunar regolith simulants in laboratories. In contrast, their findings demonstrate that these fibers can be naturally produced on the moon, opening up possibilities for space-based fabrication of various types of glass fibers, including optical fibers and structural fibers, essential for future lunar bases.

Understanding the lunar environment and its resources is crucial for the construction of sustainable habitats on the moon, a necessary step before embarking on long-term exploration and development efforts. The IOP study not only provides valuable insights into the geological processes that have shaped the lunar surface but also offers a potential pathway towards establishing permanent lunar bases. Furthermore, the knowledge gained from this research could also be applied to future Mars missions, as NASA and China have plans to initiate manned missions to Mars by 2033. Exploring the Martian environment and its resources would enable the development of specialized construction methods for creating surface habitats on the red planet.

Leave a Comment