The moon is sprinkled with patches of frozen water, NASA scientists discovered. Mining it may be crucial for travel to Mars and beyond.
NASAscientists have discovered caches of waterhidden across the moon's surface.
- Water could be a crucial resource for astronaut missions to Mars, since
icecan be converted into rocket fuel.
- In a new study, a space plane detected the signal for H2O on the
moon's surface. Other new research found small, permanent shadows where water ice could survive on the lunar surface.
- NASA's next moon rover is designed to investigate water-rich regions of the moon.
The moon is littered with patches of hidden water, NASA researchers have discovered.
Until now, NASA didn't know how much water could be available on the moon or how easy it would be to mine. But two papers published in the journal Nature Astronomy on Monday make the future of lunar ice mining much brighter.One of the studies confirmed the presence of molecular water in the moon's surface dust for the first time. The other identified tens of billions of small, cold regions in shadows across the moon where the sun never shines and ice rests on the surface.
"Both, in different ways, would seem to indicate that there's more water available on the lunar surface than we've been thinking even recently," Leslie Gertsch, a geological engineer at the Missouri University of
A space plane detected lunar H2O for the first timeExperts had long thought the moon wouldn't be a safe place for water, since it has no atmosphere to shield its surface from the sun's radiation. But scientists and their spacecraft have been picking up telltale signs of lunar water for the past three decades. First, they found hydrogen lingering over the poles. Then traces of water appeared in lunar-rock samples from the Apollo missions. Later, the Cassini spacecraft picked up signals of water as it glanced at the moon on its way to Saturn.
Finally, in 2018, scientists confirmed that water ice was sitting on the surface of the moon's poles. These reservoirs lie in shadowed regions called "cold traps" that sunlight can't reach.
But there was always the possibility that none of those discoveries was actually water as we know it — H2O — but a compound called hydroxyl.Researchers tend to describe both compounds as "water," but the oxygen and hydrogen molecules that make up hydroxyl form a much stronger chemical bond than those in H2O.
"If we wanted to extract hydroxyl from a soil to use it for a resource, it would take a lot more energy to break that apart, to create other things like breathable oxygen or water to drink for the astronauts," Casey Honniball, a postdoctoral fellow at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, said in a press briefing. "But with molecular water, if we have that on the moon and we can extract it, that makes it an easier process to get it to other compounds that we would want to use."
To find out whether the moon harbors molecular water or hydroxyl, Honniball hopped on a space plane.The Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy is a converted Boeing 747 souped up with a 2.7-meter telescope and the ability to fly into the stratosphere. That's high enough to avoid the atmosphere's distortion of infrared signals from the moon.
That means the water molecules are probably embedded in glass beads that make up about 30% of the lunar soil. Those likely protect the H2O from the vaporizing powers of the sun.Honniball doesn't know whether glass across the entire moon contains water — it could be specific to the region she studied. But either way, water molecules embedded in glass beads would not be easy to mine.
"There's a reason why high-level nuclear waste is planned to be put into glass," Gertsch said. "Glass does not let stuff out easily."
Little shadows could harbor water across the moonUntil now, the best-known caches of lunar water were those in the large, permanently shadowed regions at the poles — the coldest spots ever measured in our solar system. But in digging through thousands of photos from NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, a group of researchers found smaller regions of permanent shadow littering the moon's surface.
Paul Hayne, a planetary scientist at the University of Colorado Boulder who led the study, likened the discovery to "turning over a rock and finding all the gazillions of insects that skitter away." He estimated that there are tens of billions of these "micro cold traps" surrounding the moon's poles.
Hayne's team did not look for water in these regions, but previous research had already confirmed the presence of water ice in the large shadows on the poles."If there's water in these larger cold traps, then there should be water in the smaller ones too," Hayne told Business Insider.
This means that mining machines could theoretically stay in the sunlight — and avoid extreme freezing temperatures — while dredging ice from micro traps.
"You could go to a place in these polar regions and stand in the sunlight and bend over, or use a tool to extract water from one of these much smaller shadows that's much more accessible," Hayne said.In all, Hayne's team estimated that shadowed cold-trap regions covered about 0.15% of the moon's surface.
But Gertsch said big questions about lunar ice remain. Though both of these discoveries are "enticing," she said, we can't really know the nature of the lunar ground until "we go up there and mess around."
NASA is sending a water-hunting rover to the moon's south poleTo investigate lunar water up close, NASA is preparing to launch a drill and mass-measuring instrument to the moon's south pole in 2022. Once there, it will try to harvest water ice.
Then in 2023, NASA aims to launch the
But if NASA really wants to set up a moon-mining operation, it will have a lot more work to do.
"It takes more than one rover," Gertsch said. "You can't just send one prospector on a donkey out into the mountains and expect to design a mine from that."
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