It was back in 2008 that conclusive evidence was found that water exists on the moon. Alberto Saal, a Brown University geologist contracted by NASA, analyzed rock specimens gathered by Apollo 15 and detected water in lunar volcanic glasses. It has since been theorized that water was a part of the lunar geology since its birth. NASA is now looking to mine that water.
In addition to water, the element Helium-3 is abundant on the moon and extremely rare on earth. The element is carried through space by solar winds but is prevented from reaching earth by its magnetic field. Helium-3 is thought to produce safe nuclear fusion without the dangerous waste products. It is envisioned as a potential energy supply that could totally eliminate dependence on fossil fuels. Private companies in addition the China and India are also planning on mining the moon’s Helium-3 supply.
It is believed that charged hydrogen ions distributed by solar winds could also explain the presence of lunar ice. These atoms then interacted with trapped oxygen in moon rocks to form the water. Using NASA’s instruments, India’s Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft discovered over 40 ice-laden craters. Ranging in size up to nine miles across, NASA estimates that at least 600 million metric tons of water exist.
There is also mounting evidence that large deposits of water exist at the lunar poles. This is based on the Lyman Alpha Mapping Project that concluded that permanently shadowed lunar landscape could hide large quantities of frozen water. It was in Oct.
2010 that scientists announced that the Cabeus Crater near the moon’s south pole was filled with ice.
NASA is now in the process of organizing two missions to study the feasibility of utilizing lunar resources. The Resource Prospector Mission and Lunar Flashlight will study the availability of natural resources on the lunar surface as well as their accessibility. The missions are scheduled to commence in 2017 and 2018.
With a potential to launch in Dec. 2017, Lunar Flashlight will use a “solar sail” technique to fly to the moon. It is a CubeSat mission and the actual size of the spacecraft is as small as a cereal box. Once deployed in space it will unfold its solar sails that will ultimately reach 860 square feet in size. The tiny craft will be propelled by the sun’s photons and reach its destination in six months, at which time it will begin orbiting the moon. Orbits will be sequentially spiraling towards the surface until it reaches an altitude of 12 miles.
Lunar Flashlight will then begin a series of 80 orbits mapping and measuring the moon’s dark areas for deposits of water ice. To do this the solar sails will be used as a reflective mirror to bounce sunlight onto the shadowed areas. A passive infrared spectrometer will be used to analyze the light for indications of water. Lunar flashlight’s specific purpose is to locate water that can be used in future explorations.
The Resource Prospector Mission will deploy a mechanical rover on the lunar surface to a yet undetermined location. Using a neutron spectrometer the rover will analyze the surface for water concentration levels up to 3.3 feet deep. While the rover is solar-powered, it will be equipped with batteries to keep it functioning in the shadowed regions. Its operational life expectancy is approximately one week.
There appears to be a great interest by several entities to investigate the feasibility of beginning mining operations on the moon. Water and Helium-3 are the targeted resources. NASA (U.S.), China and India, all major energy users, are all developing plans that include mining the lunar surface. The moon could just be starting point, however, as there is even a greater supply of Helium-3 on Jupiter.
By Hans Benes
Image courtesy of NASA