Enough Water on the Moon to Consider Space Station, U.S. Scientists Say

The amount of water discovered on the moon last year when scientists purposely slammed a rocket into the lunar south pole may be enough to help set up a space fueling station, according to latest data from the mission.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration crashed the Centaur rocket into a crater called Cabeus, kicking up about two tons of material estimated to contain 5.6 percent water, according to reports in the journal Science. That’s more water by mass than in the Sahara desert, which has 2 to 3 percent.

There may be sufficient water to separate into its component parts, hydrogen and oxygen, and use the hydrogen for rocket fuel, said Anthony Colaprete, a planetary scientist for NASA at the Ames Research Laboratory in California and an author of three of the papers. That could mean the moon would be useful as a launching point for missions to other destinations, such as a moon of Saturn or Jupiter.

“We didn’t know the moon after all,” said Peter Schultz, a planetary geologist at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island and author of two of the papers, in a telephone interview. “It’s like there was a different face and it was hidden in a treasure trove.”

Also found were carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, ammonia, silver and mercury.

Moon Ideal Stop-Over

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, Colaprete said.

“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,” Colaprete said. “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.”

Only half a percent of ice by mass would be enough to make it worthwhile to extract water and separate it into its principal components, Colaprete said. And water is better than other forms of hydrogen because it takes less energy to separate from oxygen than to take out hydrogen bound in rock, he said.

Other elements found in the crater were unexpected, Schultz said. The most likely explanation is that they were generated or left by impacts from meteorites or comets, although the moon once had active volcanoes, which may have generated some of the compounds.

Lunar Mission

The papers stem from the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite. The LCROSS mission slammed the spent rocket into a crater where hydrogen had been detected. The impact tossed up about six feet of lunar material more than half a mile above the crater floor, high enough to be seen in the sunlight.

For about four minutes, the plume was measured using nearby instruments. The amount measured was almost two tons, according to the reports.

Cabeus is near the south pole of the moon, and is permanently in shadow. Unlike other parts of the moon, which have 14 earth days of sunlight followed by 14 of darkness, the poles have sunlight about 80 or 90 percent of the time, Colaprete said. That makes for better conditions for setting up explorations, as well as a stop-over point.

“One possible architecture is a base in the illuminated regions and then you can drive to the dark regions, which are not too far away,” Colaprete said. “It’s a really extreme environment, where you can quickly go from 70 to 80 percent sunlight to permanent shadow.”

The next questions scientists want to address are where else ice might be on the moon, as well as what the environment around the impact site is like, Schultz said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Elizabeth Lopatto in New York at elopatto@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Reg Gale at rgale5@bloomberg.net.

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