NASA announced its groundbreaking discovery of lunar water last November. Now, a more detailed analysis of the data—the subject of six research papers being published in the journal Science—concludes that there is a lot more water on the moon than anyone expected, about twice the concentrations seen in the Sahara Desert
“It’s really wet,” said Anthony Colaprete, co-author of one of the Science papers and a space scientist at NASA Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif. He and his 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.
The two missions were designed to work together, and support from LRO was critical to the success of LCROSS. During impact, LRO, which is normally looking at the lunar surface, was tilted toward the horizon so it could observe the plume. Shortly after the Centaur hit the Moon, LRO flew past debris and gas from the impact while its instruments collected data.
The presence of water doesn’t make it more likely that there ever was life on the moon, as the location studied is among the coldest in the solar system. But the large quantity boosts the case for a manned lunar base from which to launch other interplanetary adventures. Water is crucial because its components, hydrogen and oxygen, are key ingredients for rocket fuel. Oxygen can also be extracted from water to make breathable air.
Finding a water source on the moon has long been a dream, because it could save on the expense of transporting it from earth. A bottle of water on the moon would run about $50,000, according to NASA, because that is what it costs, per pound, to launch anything to earth’s nearest neighbor.
China has pledged to land astronauts on the moon by 2025, and India has plans to do the same by 2020. Japan wants to establish an unmanned moon base in a decade, potentially setting the stage for a manned mission later. So far, only the U.S. has sent astronauts to the moon.
The quantity of water discovered was 50% greater than NASA’s initial estimates. Other measurements suggest there’s even a “lunar permafrost” covering about 30% of the southern polar region of the moon, with ice lying just below the surface.