Brett Smith for redOrbit.com — Your Universe Online
The prospect of finding frozen water on the moon has several companies scrambling to stake a claim in “them thar lunar hills.”
“This is like the gold rush that led to the settlement of California,” said Phil Metzger, a physicist who leads the Granular Mechanics and Regolith Operations Lab, part of Kennedy Space Center’s Surface Systems Office. “This is the water rush.”
Water has already been found on asteroids and its discovery on the moon represents a top prize for NASA’s exploration plans because the resource has so many potential uses for wayfaring astronauts. Comprised of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom, water can be turned into everything from rocket fuel to a source of fresh air and water.
One of the companies leading the charge to mine the moon is the Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic Technology. The company is currently in the midst of developing a solar-powered rover designed to search and drill for the frozen water.
“Our intent is to land on the surface of the moon in October 2015 and find water,” said the president of Astrobotic, John Thornton, alluding to his company´s recent deal with SpaceX to launch a lander and rover on a Falcon 9 rocket.
Thornton added that a number of competitors have sprung up and this shows the potential for landing a robotic explorer is real.
“If we were doing something really big and no one else was trying to do it, then it might not be that big,” he said.
Human visitors to the lunar surface never found signs of frozen water as they walked along the moon´s equator between 1969 and 1972. Water has never been found in any rock or soil samples ever collected from the moon. Within the past 15 years, several probes found signs frozen water not only exists on the moon, but that it is quite pervasive.
Scientists are also curious to find out if any frozen water is in the form of a powder, like the type skiers plow through as they swish down a mountainside, or if it´s completely solid ice. Some scientists expect to find evidence of water seeping down between granules of soil and freezing to create rocks as hard as granite.
“Our best guess is it’s going to be the ice,” Thornton said. “Probably small little pieces of ice mixed in with the regolith.”
According to an official statement on the NASA website, the agency is excited about the chances to use a new resource for deep space exploration.
For its part, Astrobotic said it wants to use the robotic prospector to map where the largest deposits of water and other helpful chemicals are located. The company could then use the information to efficiently extract the materials from the moon. According to Thornton, there are no plans to send water or other lunar samples back to the Earth.
“The beauty of sending a robot is they don’t demand a return ticket,” Thornton said. “Once we know where the water is and what form it is in, we can develop systems to produce it in useable quantities. Water is a critical resource because you can drink it, breathe it and use it for rocket fuel.”