Satellite Technology Feature Article
Ice on Mercury to Mining on the Moon
By Doug Mohney, Contributing Editor
NASA says it has evidence that there's plenty of water ice and other frozen volatile materials in the polar craters of Mercury – data that will give comfort to entrepreneurs planning to setup shop on the Moon for mining water. And there are also rumblings of a "Golden Spike" venture with substantial funding and technical expertise to do just that.
Arriving in orbit around Mercury in March 2011, NASA's MErcury Surface, Space, ENvironment, GEOchemistry and Ranging (MESSENGER) spacecraft has information indicating the water ice in Mercury's Polar Regions is substantial, as it would cover an area the size Washington D.C. with a thickness of two miles.
Pockets at Mercury's poles never see the Sun and are permanently shaded. Scientists believe comets deposited the ice and other volatiles over millions of years, with the ice covered by other dark, tar-like organic material acting as an insulating layer. Surface temperatures on Mercury, where the Sun does shine, can reach up to 850 degrees Fahrenheit – four times the boiling point of water.
If ice and organic materials can exist in shaded craters on Mercury – as researchers have implied in a trio of independent research papers published online at Science Express – it's almost a lock that the same finds exist in large quantities on the Moon, offering a scientific boon on how the Universe and life was created on Earth and a financial one for commercial companies that can successfully map and exploit the resources for space exploration and mining activities.
Over the past month, there have been rumblings of a well-funded private effort for a commercial lunar expedition. The "Golden Spike" effort reportedly would put humans back on the surface of the moon by 2020, with plans to park a lander in lunar orbit as part of a "Cislunar Superhighway" infrastructure that would include a fuel depot for space missions. Two commercial astronauts would first make short visits to the surface, with operations evolving into a man-tended outpost using inflatable modules.
If true, Golden Spike could significantly challenge NASA's status quo thinking about CIS lunar space. The space agency has penciled in a trip to the L-2 point on the far side of the moon by 2021, but the trip would require the expensive Space Launch System (SLS) currently on the drawing board. Golden Spike plans to use near-term vehicles such as the SpaceX (News - Alert) Falcon Heavy. Funding is being provided by "some big money and foreign investors," according to NASASpaceflight.com, with "high profile" individuals in the aerospace industry involved. Former NASA official and space exploration rock star Alan Stern is reportedly involved in the effort and a formal announcement is expected in December.
One goal for commercial operations on the moon would be to extract the ice and other volatiles and use the water for life support, radiation shielding and to break into hydrogen and oxygen for rocket fuel. The fuel would then be used for operations and stockpiled at the L-2 point for use by deep space operations to asteroids and Mars.
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Edited by Allison Boccamazzo