NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine has a vision for renewed and “sustainable” human exploration of the moon, and he cites the existence of water on the lunar surface as a key to chances for success.
“We know that there’s hundreds of billions of tons of water ice on the surface of the moon,” Bridenstine said on Tuesday in a Reuters TV interview in Washington, a day after NASA unveiled its analysis of data collected from lunar orbit by a spacecraft from India.
The findings published on Monday mark the first time scientists have confirmed by direct observation the presence of water on the moon’s surface — in hundreds of patches of ice deposited in the darkest and coldest reaches of its polar regions.
The discovery holds tantalizing implications for efforts to return humans to the moon for the first time in half a century. The presence of water offers a potentially valuable resource not only for drinking, but for producing more rocket fuel and oxygen to breathe.
Bridenstine, a former US Navy fighter pilot and Oklahoma congressman tapped by US President Donald Trump in April to head NASA, spoke about “hundreds of billions of tons” of water ice that he said are now known to be available on the lunar surface.
Yet, it is still unknown how much ice is actually present on the moon and how easy it would be to extract in sufficient quantities to be of practical use, NASA lunar scientist Sarah Noble said in a separate telephone interview.
“We have lots of models that give us different answers. We can’t know how much water there is,” she said, adding that it would ultimately take surface exploration by robotic landers or rovers, in more than one place, to find out.
Most of the newly confirmed frozen water is concentrated in the shadows of craters at both poles, where the temperature never rises higher than minus-121°C.
Although the moon was long believed to be entirely dry or nearly devoid of moisture, scientists have found increasing evidence that water exists there.
A NASA rocket sent crashing into a permanently shadowed lunar crater near the moon’s south pole in 2009 kicked up a plume of material from beneath the surface that included water.
A study published the following year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences concluded that water is likely widespread within the moon’s rocky interior, in concentrations ranging from 64 parts per billion to 5 parts per million.
Bridenstine spoke about making the next generation of lunar exploration a “sustainable enterprise,” using rockets and other space vehicles that could be used again and again.
“So we want tugs that go from Earth orbit to lunar orbit to be reusable,” Bridenstine said. “We want a space station around the moon to be there for a very long period of time, and we want landers that go back and forth between the space station around the moon and the surface of the moon.”
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