It now seems plausible that if NASA or another international space agency wanted to, it could build a human or even a spacecraft refueling outpost on the Moon.
NASA today released new research obtained from its Lunar CRater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) and Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter which slammed into the Moon last year as part of an experiment to find out what the orb was really made of. The impact of the $80 million LCROSS satellites into the Lunar surface created an ice-filled a debris plume that NASA scientists have been working "28 hour days" to analyze.
NASA said the mission found evidence that the lunar soil within craters is rich in useful materials, and the moon is chemically active and has a water cycle. Scientists also confirmed the water was in the form of mostly pure ice crystals in some places.
"By understanding the processes and environments that determine where water ice will be, how water was delivered to the moon and its active water cycle, future mission planners might be better able to determine which locations will have easily-accessible water. The existence of mostly pure water ice could mean future human explorers won't have to retrieve the water out of the soil in order to use it for valuable life support resources. In addition, an abundant presence of hydrogen gas, ammonia and methane could be exploited to produce fuel," NASA stated.
The diversity and abundance of certain materials called volatiles, which are compounds that freeze and are trapped in the cold lunar craters and vaporize when warmed by the sun included methane, ammonia, hydrogen gas, carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide. The LCROSS instruments also discovered relatively large amounts of light metals such as sodium, mercury and silver.
The findings are published in a set of papers in Science including one from Brown University's planetary geologist Peter Schultz that states the assortment of volatiles - the chemical elements weakly attached to regolith grains - gives scientists clues where they came from and how they got to the polar craters, many of which haven't seen sunlight for billions of years and are among the coldest spots in the solar system.
Schultz said many of the volatiles originated with the billions of years-long fusillade of comets, asteroids and meteoroids that have pummeled the Moon. He thinks an assortment of elements and compounds, deposited in the regolith all over the Moon, could have been quickly liberated by later small impacts or could have been heated by the sun, supplying them with energy to escape and move around until they reached the poles, where they became trapped beneath shadows of the frigid craters.
In a Bloomberg interview, another LCROSS paper author, Anthony Colaprete, a planetary scientist for NASA at the Ames Research Laboratory detailed the potential space exploration importance of the findings: The moon is an ideal stop-over because its gravity is one- sixth of earth's, and about 2 million pounds of fuel are required to get into low earth orbit. Once you get off earth, you've used a certain amount of fuel, and if you want to go somewhere else, you have to bring that fuel, but that makes it even harder to get off earth. If you can find resources on the moon, or anywhere else, we can use them to generate fuel in space, and use that infrastructure to bring humans to other places."
Colaprete told the Wall Street Journal about the Moon: "It's really wet," and that he and his NASA colleagues estimate that 5.6% of the total mass of the targeted lunar crater's soil consists of water ice. In other words, 2,200 pounds of moon dirt would yield a dozen gallons of water.
While the findings may again spark interest in utilizing the Moon for human purposes, NASA's budget plan no longer includes such missions. The European Space Agency this year said it was moving forward with a plan to land an autonomous spacecraft on the moon by 2017, with the idea a manned vehicle could land there sometime in the future. The space agency said several European space companies have already assessed the various mission options and designs. China this month launched a Moon probe and say it will land a rover on the Moon's surface in the future.
LCROSS was made up of two spacecraft. The first, known as the heavy impactor Centaur separated from the main LCROSS satellite and rocketed toward the moon's surface, burrowing at least 90ft into the moon's surface and throwing up an estimated 250 metric tons of lunar dust. Following four minutes behind, the LRO spacecraft flew through the debris plume, collecting and relaying data back to Earth before it too crashed into the lunar surface, burrowing in about 60ft, NASA stated.
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