NASA confirms there is enough water already on the moon to support lunar colony
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Any potential long-term manned moon base faces the problem of supplying enough food, and especially water, to supply its crew.
But NASA have announced a major new find that could be a game-changer for lunar exploration – millions of small deposits of ice dotted all over the Moon’s surface.
While some are in tiny depressions in the surface that are no larger than a penny, the total amounts to a gigantic deposit of water that is billions of years old.
A new study published in Nature Astronomy today calculates that around 25,000 square miles of the lunar surface could contain water.
That quantity is equivalent to a lake half the size of England – almost four times as much as previous estimates.
It would be easy to access as a resource for future expeditions to explore Earth's only natural satellite – and even stay on it.
Last week NASA awarded Nokia a $14 billion ( £10.7bn) contract to build a mobile network on the moon in 2022, so the first woman and next man there will be able to phone home. A settlement is expected to be established by the end of the decade.
Dr Haynes' team assessed a whole range of possible sizes for the frozen ice – down to no bigger than a penny.
These are hundreds to thousands of times more numerous than larger ones – and are present at both poles. Many have not seen a single ray of sunlight for billions of years.
The analysis of data from NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter shows water is widespread in reservoirs of various shapes and sizes.
Combining real-life observations with mathematical tools showed the moon looks "a bit like a golf ball" at a very small scale.
Dr Hayne said: "If we're right, water is going to be more accessible for drinking water, for rocket fuel, everything that NASA needs water for.”
Corresponding author Dr Casey Honniball, of Hawaii University in Honolulu, added: "The detected water is probably stored in glass or between grains on the lunar surface that protect it from the harsh environment."
NASA is hoping to return humans to the moon by 2024 – and build long-term settlements there.
If the Moon were colonised it could be tested if humans can survive in low gravity. Those results could be utilised for a viable Mars colony as well.
NASA’s huge plans for the Moon – female astronauts, robots, and a space station
The Moon would also be an ideal staging post to launch spacecraft to more distant destinations. The energy required to send objects from the moon to space is much less than from Earth.
It also possesses substantial natural resources that could be of economic importance.
The first lunar base could be built at Shackleton Crater – near the south pole – that was created by a massive asteroid.
It stretches 13 miles across – and several miles deep. The moon's position in relation to the sun means much of the interior is permanently in shadow.
A complete lack of direct sunlight causes temperatures inside to hover at around minus 300 degrees Fahrenheit.
Dr Hayne said: "You look down into Shackleton Crater or Shoemaker Crater, you're looking into this vast, dark inaccessible region. It's very forbidding."
That forbidding nature, however, may also be key to these craters' importance. It's believed they could be ideal environments for hosting ice.
The scarce resource is occasionally delivered in large quantities when water-rich comets or asteroids crash down.
Dr Hayne explained: "The temperatures are so low in cold traps that ice would behave like a rock. If water gets in there, it's not going anywhere for a billion years."
He is leading a NASA project called the Lunar Compact Infrared Imaging System (L-CIRiS) that will take heat-sensing panoramic images of the south pole in 2022.
If his team's findings are borne out, locating the ingredients for a hot shower on the moon may have just gotten a lot easier.
Dr Hayne said: "Astronauts may not need to go into these deep, dark shadows. They could walk around and find one that's a metre wide and that might be just as likely to harbour ice."
A second study in the same journal also found an abundance of water around the south pole.
The finding was based on data from the SOFIA (Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy) airborne telescope.
- Moon landing
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