Can moon water pave the way to Mars?
NASA has discovered water on the sunlit surface of the Moon for the first time. The breakthrough discovery paves the way for a sustainable lunar base.
Given that we first contacted the Moon over five decades ago you may wonder: why hadn’t we found water sooner? Since the 1960s, scientists have suspected that frozen water survived in the permanently shadowed craters at the poles, but had speculated that any water on the sunlit surfaces would immediately dry up. This discovery jettisons that assumption: the resource may be much more abundant than was previously thought.
How was the discovery made?
The signature of water molecules was spotted by an airborne observatory operated by the US space agency. Known as Sofia, this infrared telescope has been integrated with a converted Boeing 747, which flies above the Earth’s atmosphere at 560mph.
Researchers believe the water may have arrived via tiny meteorite impacts or formed by the interaction of particles ejected from the sun. The known water deposits are believed to be stored in bubbles of lunar glass or between grains on the surface.
What are the implications for space travel?
The detection of water significantly boosts the prospects of establishing a permanent lunar base — whether that be for research purposes, a military base or as a refuelling station for future Mars-bound missions.
Dr Hannah Sargeant - a planetary scientist from the Open University - told BBC News: "The discovery suggests water may be far more accessible to humans than previously thought. This provides a more sustainable way of doing space exploration and dramatically expands the areas of the Moon where humans might be able to establish a presence.”
Reliable water access is critical for establishing a sustainable human presence on our only natural satellite. Firstly, it can be converted into oxygen for breathing; secondly, it can be used as a drinking supply (after treatment, of course). This allows researchers on a permanent lunar base to manipulate the local environment to sustain themselves. Before, space agencies would have packed supply flights with vast quantities of water and oxygen. Now, ships will have more free space to transport other essential research equipment.
Excitingly, space crews could turn the Moon’s water into the hydrogen required to refuel their space rockets. By enabling more frequent launches from the lunar surface, this could be the game-changer that propels us toward the next giant leap: a human Mars mission.
The handy thing about exploiting the Moon’s natural water is that it slices the financial burden of further space travel. By refuelling and launching rockets using local water resources, astronauts become less reliant on costly imports of fuel from Earth. Free from transporting heavy quantities of water or fuel, supply missions will be needed less frequently, which makes travel to the Moon and Mars cheaper.
Before this groundbreaking discovery, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk had warned that the Moon's lack of hydrogen and oxygen would be a "big challenge" for refuelling ships on the lunar surface. The news of accessible surface water immeasurably simplifies that task.
Sadly, the race for the base could take longer than expected. A report by the US agency's office of inspector general raised doubts about NASA’s “optimistic” 2024 deadline for landing the first woman and next man on the Moon. It warns “this ambitious goal” is unlikely to be achieved unless "strong, and sustained leadership from the president is forthcoming…”
Some commentators expect that the Biden presidency will divert funds away from space exploration, re-prioritising the agency's climate change research (which was financially neglected by the Trump administration). Such an approach could delay the establishment of a lunar base until 2028.
However, waning political willpower need not derail progress in space. The recent explosion in private funding guarantees sustained momentum towards human space exploration. The discovery of accessible moon water undoubtedly makes a lunar base more viable: it unlocks previously unimaginable possibilities, and will only speed up investment.
It seems inevitable humans will return to the Moon; the discovery of water means that this time, we will be able to stay. So, water we waiting for?