The moon is littered with patches of hidden water, NASA researchers have discovered.
That’s great news for the agency’s plans to send astronauts back to the moon, set up a permanent base there, and eventually use it as a stopping point on the way to Mars.
Those ambitions hinge on the ability to mine water ice on the moon and break it down into oxygen and hydrogen to make rocket fuel. Since it’s extremely costly and difficult to launch enough fuel off of Earth to get astronauts to Mars, water on the moon will likely play a critical role in kickstarting a new era of human deep-space exploration.
“You start making gas stations in space. This really starts cutting your dependence on bringing all that fuel from Earth,” Angel Abbud-Madrid, director of the Center for Space Resources at the Colorado School of Mines, previously told Business Insider. “That’s really been what’s holding us back from deep-space exploration.”
Until now, NASA hadn’t known how much water could be available on the moon, or how easy it would be to mine. But two papers published in the journal Nature Astronomy on Monday make the future of lunar ice mining much brighter.
One of the studies confirmed the presence of molecular water in the moon’s surface dust for the first time. The other identified tens of billions of small, cold regions in shadows across the moon where the sun never shines and ice sits comfortably on the surface.
“Both, in different ways, would seem to indicate that there’s more water available on the lunar surface than we’ve been thinking even recently,” Leslie Gertsch, a geological engineer at the Missouri University of Science and Technology, and who was not involved in the studies, told Business Insider. “Whether it’s mineable or not is another question.”
A space plane detected lunar H2O for the first time
Experts had long thought the moon wouldn’t be a safe place for water, since it has no atmosphere to shield its surface from the sun’s radiation.
But scientists and their spacecraft have been picking up telltale signs of lunar water for the last three decades. First, they found hydrogen lingering over the poles. Then traces of water appeared in lunar-rock samples from the Apollo missions. Later, the Cassini spacecraft picked up signals for water as it glanced at the moon on its way to Saturn.
Finally, in 2018, scientists confirmed water ice sitting on the surface of the moon’s poles. These reservoirs lie in shadowed regions called “cold traps” that sunlight can’t reach.
But there was always a possibility that none of those discoveries were actually water as we know it — H2O — instead of a compound called hydroxyl (OH).
Researchers tend to use