Tons of Water Ice at the Moon's North Pole Could Sustain a Lunar Base

By Smriti Rao | March 2, 2010 5:21 pm

moon-iceWater, water, everywhere! Radar results from a lunar probe have revealed that the moon’s north pole could be holding millions of tons of water in the form of thick ice, raising the possibility that human life could be sustained on Earth’s silvery satellite, NASA scientists said.

A NASA radar aboard India’s Chandrayaan-I lunar orbiter found 40 craters, ranging in size from 1 to 9 miles across, with pockets of ice. Scientists estimate at least 600 million tons of ice could be entombed in these craters [Wired].

Scientists estimate that this amount of water could easily sustain a moon base, or, if the oxygen in the ice was converted to fuel, could fire one space shuttle per day for 2,200 years. Last year, scientists found almost 26 gallons of water ice on the moon’s south pole, by crashing a rocket hull into a cold, dark crater. The crash produced a plume of material that provided evidence of water ice on the moon’s surface.

The craters which house the water deposits at both the north and south poles of the moon are extremely dark, cold, and most never catch any sunlight. Temperatures in some of these permanently darkened craters can drop as low as 25 Kelvin (-248C; -415F) — colder than the surface of Pluto — allowing water-ice to remain stable [BBC]. Presenting the findings at a major planetary science conference in Texas, Paul Spudis of Houston’s Lunar and Planetary Institute said the ice at the north pole could be buried under a layer of lunar soil, which may have prevented it from being vaporized even in crater regions that are exposed to sunlight.

The findings, which will be published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, are the strongest indication yet that the moon could sustain a human outpost. Says Spurdis: “Now we can say with a fair degree of confidence that a sustainable human presence on the Moon is possible. It’s possible using the resources we find there” [BBC]. But what a case of bad timing. The findings come just one month after the Obama administration proposed that NASA give up on its mission of returning to the moon by 2020.

So how does lunar water form? Scientists suggest that chemical reactions triggered by the solar wind, the fast-moving stream of particles that blows away from the sun, could be the source. In this method, the radiation would cause oxygen molecules already in the soil to acquire hydrogen. This means that there might not be obvious skating rinks of ice in the lunar craters, but instead so-called “adsorbed” water may be present as a fine film that coats soil particles. Other researchers have suggested that ice was delivered to the moon in comet and asteroid impacts.

But the findings are literally the tip of the iceberg, and lead to a host of further questions: How does the water move around? What percentage of the water is adsorbed molecules? What percentage is ice filling pore space? And what portion of it is the solid chunks that could nourish human exploration? [Nature blog] Researchers will have to keep investigating to find out.

Related Content:
80beats: NASA: Bombing The Moon Provided Definite Evidence of Lunar Water
Bad Astronomy: NASA Finds Reservoir of Water Ice on the Moon!
80beats: Moon Plume Detected! NASA’s Lunar Crash Wasn’t a Flop, After All
80beats: So What Exactly Happened with that Crashing Moon Probe?
80beats: Lunar Impact! NASA Probe Slams into Moon to Search for Water

Image: NASA


CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space, Technology
  • Bill

    Sweet. Now we can ruin the moon too!!

  • Gil

    @1 with a sustainable moon base, you could more cheaply mine asteroids, which would then allow you to stop various destructive mining on Earth’s surface. It’d be a net win as far as our local ecosystem went.

  • Colin Philips

    @1: don’t worry, the moon’s ecosystem is not as delicate is it looks!
    This is awesome news. Don’t worry about NASA’s budget being cut, they’re such a bloated, last-century bureaucracy, they were never going to get there anyway. What is needed, and what we now have, is increased incentives for individuals (such as myself :-) to get there!

  • amphiox

    @1: The only lunar ecosystem we could possibly ruin is the one we bring with us to the moon! In which case we deserve what we get (bring?).

    @2: First we need the enabling technology – the transport that can get us there (moon and the near earth asteroids both) rapidly, safely, and cheaply in sufficiently large numbers to do economically significant work. I don’t think we’re even close to that yet, but once we get, it’s off to the races.

  • amphiox

    @3: I agree that this is exactly the kind of resource-based incentive that could motivate private industry to go there on an economically significant scale. But realistically, it’s going to take quite a long time before any private interest will have the capacity to try something like this, without significant help from NASA or some equivalent government backed agency.

  • Sonalyst

    As we seem to be biologically tied to the oceans and the orbit of the moon has anyone else noticed dull earaches? I have spoken to others in Arizona and California and they have been having earaches out of the blue. Could it be that the impact of the equipment into the moon has put the it slightly out of orbit which is affecting it’s gravitational pull on us and thereby affecting the atmospheric pressure here?

  • christine

    Well now if we could live on the moon the earth could patch itself up while we inhabit the moon of course a bunch of building and other various objects will be destroyed in reoccuring natrual disasters but soon we will be able to fully intergrate two companion planets instead of just one, which means more natrually found materials.

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