In a press conference conducted on Oct. 21, 2010, scientists announced new findings from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and the LCROSS lunar impacter. It seems that there is even far more water on the Moon than previously thought.
According to Wired:
“On Oct. 9, 2009, the LCROSS mission sent a spent Centaur rocket crashing into Cabeus crater near the moon’s south pole, a spot previous observations had shown to be loaded with hydrogen. A second spacecraft flew through the cloud of debris kicked up by the explosion to search for signs of water and other ingredients of lunar soil.
“And water appeared in buckets. The first LCROSS results reported that about 200 pounds of water appeared in the plume. A new paper in the Oct. 22 Science ups the total amount of water vapor and water ice to 341 pounds, plus or minus 26 pounds.
“Given the total amount of soil blown out of the crater, astronomers estimate that 5.6 percent of the soil in the LCROSS impact site is water ice. Earlier studies suggested that soils containing just 1 percent water would be useful for any future space explorers trying to build a permanent lunar base.
“‘The number of 1 percent was generally agreed to as what was needed to be a net profit, a net return on the effort to extract it out of the dark shadows,’ said NASA planetary scientist Anthony Colaprete in a press conference Oct. 21. ‘We saw 5 percent, which means that indeed where we impacted would be a net benefit to somebody looking for that resource.'”
But that was not all that was found:
“But the plume wasn’t just wet. A series of papers in Science report observations from both LCROSS and LRO that show a laundry list of other compounds were also blown off the face of the moon, including hydroxyl, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, ammonia, free sodium, hydrogen, methane, sulfur dioxide and, surprisingly, silver.”
Scientists now suspect that the Moon is pockmarked with these kinds of “lunar oases,” where water and other useful materials are situated in cold traps at the bottom of craters, particularly at the lunar poles. More water seems to reside underneath lunar regolith, shielded from temperatures that would otherwise boil it off.
The confirmation that there is water on the moon, and a lot of it, has profound implications for public space policy. President Obama has canceled the Constellation return to the Moon program in favor of visiting an asteroid sometime in the 2020s. The NASA authorization bill recently passed by Congress retains the Moon as a possible future destination. However, there are no current, concrete plans for an American return to the Moon.
It is almost certainly time to rethink that decision.
Water on the Moon, apparently in quantities and forms that can be easily extracted, means that a lunar settlement would be easier and less expensive to establish. Lunar water can also be used to create rocket fuel, making the Moon a refueling depot for expeditions headed for other destinations in the Solar System, say an asteroid or even Mars.
A lunar settlement would extract lunar water and crack it into hydrogen and oxygen, the components for rocket fuel. The fuel would be stored in tanks, which could be launched from the lunar surface with electromagnetic mass drivers at the cost of pennies per pound to one of the Lagrange points where the gravity of the Earth and the Moon cancel one another out.
A space craft launched from the Earth could stop by the Lagrange point, dock with the fuel tank to top off, and then blast its way to its destination. Thus the space craft would not have to carry all the fuel it needs from Earth, devoting more mass to crew, other consumables, and equipment.
A lunar settlement could also serve as a base for exploring the geology of the Moon, operating an astronomical observatory on the lunar farside, and exploiting lunar resources, such as helium 3, useful for fueling future fusion power plants. A lunar settlement would also constitute an American and allied presence on the “ultimate high ground,” making sure that the Moon would not be used as a base of military operations by an enemy against space-based facilities or even the Earth’s surface.
In short, a lunar settlement would address so many national needs that it seems to be a no-brainer that one should be built, the sooner the better. But, thus far, the President of the United States has decided that the Moon should be bypassed in favor of one-shot, Apollo-like expeditions to asteroids and, in the far future, Mars.
The space policy implications of lunar water need to be addressed by the Congress about to be elected and, ultimately, a new President. The stakes for the future of the United States as a super power could not be greater.
Source: The Moon Hides Ice Where the Sun Don’t Shine, Lisa Grossman, Wired, October 21st, 2010