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June 25, 2012

Ice, Ice, Maybe: Evidence of Ice on the Moon Informs Future of Space Exploration

By Doug Mohney, Contributing Editor


NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) has returned data indicating ice may make up as much as 22 percent of the surface material of a big crater on the moon's south pole. These findings are the latest piece in an ongoing puzzle that will likely influence future scientific and commercial exploration beyond earth orbit.

LRO used its laser altimeter to examine the floor of Shackleton crater, a feature two miles deep, more than 12 miles wide and in permanent darkness. Water and other volatile compounds deposited there by asteroid or comet impact would be preserved by the extreme cold.

NASA and university researchers found the crater's floor to be brighter than that of other nearby craters, indicating the presence of small amounts of ice. In addition, the detailed map shows a "remarkably preserved" crater, according to a June20 NASA press release, that has been "relatively unscathed" since its formation more than three billion years ago. 

Within the large crater, there are several smaller craters and what MIT (News - Alert) lead investigator Maria Zuber called an "extremely rugged" interior. In addition, the crater's walls are even brighter than the floor, leading to speculation that occasional moonquakes generated by meteor impacts and the Earth's pull may cause the walls of the crater to shed older, darker soil.

Data from the high-resolution laser map "provides strong evidence" for ice on both the crater's floor and walls. If confirmed, the ice represents a treasure trove of compounds for scientific study and a resource for exploration, supporting a lunar base and activities beyond the moon.

But all moon ice observations to date have been from afar, with telescopes and satellites. At some point, some organization – government or commercial – will need to put a robot probe into the cold darkness of the crater to confirm the presence of ice, and if there, attempt to make a more detailed inventory as to how is present. Is it a thin layer of crystals mixed with moon dirt or does it go down for some thickness? Is ice present on the walls of the crater as well?

The competition for the Google (News - Alert) Lunar X Prize has the potential to prove an answer or two. Among the $4-million bonus prize objectives in the $30-million total pool is to confirm the presence of water. Lunar X Prize participants Astrobotics and Moon Express have set their sights on mining the moon, so confirmation of water at Shackleton would collect prize money and gather data for future mining operations.


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Edited by Braden Becker



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