Image: Earthrise
NASA
Lunar colonists may one day enjoy a view of Earth similar to the one scene in this famous photo, “Earthrise,” taken on Dec. 24, 1968, during the Apollo 8 mission.
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updated 11/13/2009 6:04:36 PM ET 2009-11-13T23:04:36

Hopes, dreams and practical plans to colonize or otherwise exploit the moon as a source of minerals or a launch pad to the cosmos got a boost today with NASA's announcement of significant water ice at the lunar south pole.

The LCROSS probe discovered the equivalent of a dozen 2-gallon buckets of water in the form of ice, in a crater at the lunar south pole. Scientists figure there's more where that came from.

"The presence of significant quantities of ice on the lunar surface catapults the moon from an interesting waypoint to a critical launching pad for humanity's exploration of the cosmos," said Peter Diamandis, CEO and chairman of the X Prize Foundation, which is running a $30 million contest for private moon rovers. "We're entering a new era of lunar exploration — 'Moon 2.0,' in which an international group of companies and governments will use the ice and other unique resources of the moon to help us expand the sphere of human influence, and to help us monitor and protect the Earth."

The water discovery firms up previous detections of the signature of water molecules by three independent spacecraft. But the new finding makes more of a splash in that the detections come from both infrared and ultraviolet measurements, and a lot more of it was detected than scientists had expected.

"It is a big 'wow,'" said Jack Burns of the Center for Astrophysics and Space Astronomy at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and director of the Lunar University Network for Astrophysics Research.

Set up lunar camp
Having that store of water on the moon could be a boon to possible future lunar camps. In addition to a source of drinking water, lunar water ice could be broken into its constituent hydrogen and oxygen atoms, ultimately to be used in rocket fuel. That would mean spacecraft ferrying future colonists to the moon would not have to take fuel for the return trip, or the fuel could be used to launch trips beyond the moon. And water could be used as a shield from cosmic radiation.

"We now can say ... that the possibility of living off the land has just gone up a notch," said Peter Schultz, professor of geological sciences at Brown University and a co-investigator on the LCROSS mission, referring to past detections of water on the moon.

Race to the moonThe new discovery comes just as the Obama administration is deciding whether to continue on with NASA's goal of putting astronauts back on the moon by 2020. Today's news could tip the scales toward another lunar leap.

"It's going to boost the interest in the moon, no doubt about it," said with Michael Wargo, chief lunar scientist for Exploration Systems at NASA Headquarters. "It's going to provide additional information that will inform the decision that will inform the future of human space exploration." He added that the new finding will likely be taken into account when that administrative decision is made.

"In terms of the clearly most practical destination for the next two to three decades for human exploration it has to be the moon," Burns told SPACE.com.

Big challenges ahead
In the midst of floating on "Cloud 9," as Burns described his reaction to the water discovery, are the logistics of actually setting up a lunar colony.

"The devil is in the details," Wargo said, adding, "None of our spacesuits that we currently have would be appropriate for that extreme an environment."

Any materials built for Earth-like temperatures won't work on the moon. "They don't bend anymore, they fracture, and they fracture brittle-y, and so everything gets extremely brittle at those temperatures," Wargo said.

Slideshow: 50 years of moon shots NASA scientists have been quietly working in their tool shops on innovative ways of mining and using the goods.

The water could also be pumped into the roof of a lunar habitat to shield astronauts from cosmic radiation. "So think of it as a layer of insulation like you would have in the roof of your house," Burns said. "Instead of thermal insulation this is insulation from radiation from the sun."

New page in lunar history
When Apollo astronauts visited the moon 40 years ago, the picture was of a bone-dry rock. That picture has only changed within the last couple of decades as scientists began to suspect that the moon's polar regions could hold stores of water ice in so-called cold traps that are permanently in the darkness and can reach just tens of degrees above absolute zero, Burns said.

The LCROSS probe impacted one such cold trap, a crater called Cabeus, on Oct. 9. The $79 million spacecraft, preceded by its Centaur rocket stage, hit the lunar surface in an effort to create a debris plume that could be analyzed by scientists for signs of water ice.

This watery find may just be the first big one with more to come. "This was a random shot in an area of permanent darkness and there may be many more places that could have more of this stuff," Schultz told SPACE.com. "This is like opening Pandora's Box."

"It's been unfortunate that some have said, 'Moon, been there done that,'" Burns said. "We only went to the moon six times and we didn't go to the most interesting places on the moon. There's so much more to discover about the moon just from a scientific perspective, what it can tell us about the formation of the Earth."

Space.com senior writer Andrea Thompson contributed to this report.

© 2013 Space.com. All rights reserved. More from Space.com.

Video: Moon river: NASA finds water on the moon

  1. Closed captioning of: Moon river: NASA finds water on the moon

    >>> "nightly news" begins now.

    >>> good evening. the headline on the "new york times" website this afternoon was simple, to the point, matter of fact, almost casual. it read "water found on moon, scientists say." for at least a generation of americans raised on the space race with a fascination about every little detail about the moon and space and beyond , this is the news scientists and astronauts and a good many of us have been waiting a lifetime to learn. we learned it from that recent bombing mission to the moon . and tonight we begin with our aviation guide, tom costello, in washington. tom good evening.

    >> reporter: hi, brian. nasa had hoped to find just a few teaspoons of water in an area the size of a football field . they found a lot more than that. they found enough water to fill all of these jugs. 24 gallons of water in just the crater they dug. the images were a big letdown. we never saw the promised plume of rock and debris when nasa 's lcross probe slammed into the moon's surface at 3500 miles per hour. but nasa now says there was a plume, right there. and in that plume nasa found what it was looking for.

    >> yes, we found water. and we didn't find just a little bit. we found a significant amount.

    >> reporter: 24 gallons of water just in the crater lcross dug. scientists had suspected that the hydrogen they'd found on the moon might be evidence of water. now hard proof.

    >> if you could clean it, it would be drinkable water .

    >> reporter: drinkable water on the moon? unthinkable during the apollo missions . and it means a future moon base could mine for water rather than carry it from earth.

    >> but it's not just water that we drink. it's also the oxygen atoms give us air to breathe, and water can be a fuel.

    >> reporter: rocket fuel from hydrogen in the water. but just as the moon is looking more hospitable another manned mission is looking less likely. president obama 's human space flight review committee has reported back that nasa 's plan of returning to the moon by 2020 is unrealistic, underfunded by at least $3 billion a year.

    >> the human space flight program that the united states is currently pursuing is one that is on an unsustainable trajectory.

    >> reporter: the president has yet to decide whether to ask congress for more money and continue with the ares 1 on a return lunar mission. but for many space enthusiasts finding water has only whet the appetite for a return trip to the moon . so where did all this water come from? possibly from comets pounding the moon over and over again. and if that's the truth, then all that water and all that ice might hold secrets to the history of the solar system . in the words of one nasa scientist, "this ain't your father's moon." brian?

    >> tom costello with a lot of water next to him in washington starting us off on a friday night. tom, thanks.

    >>> more new numbers on swine

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