NASA Finds Millions of Tons of Water Ice in Lunar Craters, No Moon Bombing Necessary

Water on the Moon

This image of the lunar south pole – snapped by the LRO late last year – identifies several craters including Cabeus A, in which water was discovered last year. Similar craters on the lunar north pole are harboring hundreds of millions of tons of water, and these southern craters could be as well.NASA

Last year's "moon bombing" proved that water ice exists beneath the lunar south pole, but new findings from a NASA instrument aboard an Indian orbiter have determined that tons of water ice is hiding on the lunar surface in permanently shadowed craters at the north pole as well. Researchers estimate 600 million metric tons of water ice could be hiding there, an amount that could potentially sustain a manned moon base.

NASA's Mini-SAR radar instrument has been studying the moon from India's Chandrayaan-1 lunar orbiter since October 2008. Since then it has worked in conjunction with other instruments to find hard evidence for water on the moon, but up to this point researchers found only isolated evidence of water and water vapor; the finding of 600 million tons of water ice lurking in lunar shadows proves not only that surface water exists in abundance on our rocky satellite, but suggests that water creation, migration and retention are taking place there.

Those 600 million tons may just be the tip of the proverbial iceberg as well. Water was detected in a south pole crater by NASA's LCROSS mission last year, and much more water ice may be found in neighboring craters there.

For future research, the implications of vast deposits of surface water ice on the moon are vast. NASA scientists have said in the past that if plentiful ice deposits exist on the moon, they could be melted down for drinking water, separated into oxygen and hydrogen to provide rocket fuel and drinking water, and perhaps even be used to help power a moon base's fuel cells.

Of course, the latest federal budget nixed Constellation, which aimed to send astronauts back to the moon by 2020, and the finding of lunar ice isn't likely to rearrange NASA's priorities now. But while NASA director Charles Bolden told legislators recently that Mars is America's next great space ambition, he left open the possibility that the moon might serve as a means to that end. Having an abundant supply of water waiting for us on the moon might just tip the scales in that direction.