Water discovery fuels hope to colonize moon

"Earthrise" seen by the Apollo 8 astronauts in December 1968. Credit: 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.NASA
/ Source: Space.com

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.

The 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.

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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.