Water at the Lunar Poles
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Lunar Prospector Finds Evidence of Ice at Moon's Poles

March 5, 1998



There is a high probability that water ice exists at both the north and south poles of the Moon, according to initial scientific data returned by NASA's Lunar Prospector.

The Discovery Program mission also has produced the first operational gravity map of the entire lunar surface, which should serve as a fundamental reference for all future lunar exploration missions, project scientists announced today at NASA's Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, CA.

Just two months after the launch of the cylindrical spacecraft, mission scientists have solid evidence of the existence of lunar water ice, including estimates of its volume, location and distribution. "We are elated at the performance of the spacecraft and its scientific payload, as well as the resulting quality and magnitude of information about the Moon that we already have been able to extract," said Dr. Alan Binder, Lunar Prospector Principal Investigator from the Lunar Research Institute, Gilroy, CA.

The presence of water ice at both lunar poles is strongly indicated by data from the spacecraft's neutron spectrometer instrument, according to mission scientists. Graphs of data ratios from the neutron spectrometer "reveal distinctive 3.4 percent and 2.2 percent dips in the relevant curves over the northern and southern polar regions, respectively," Binder said. "This is the kind of data 'signature' one would expect to find if water ice is present."

However, the Moon's water ice is not concentrated in polar ice sheets, mission scientists cautioned. "While the evidence of water ice is quite strong, the water 'signal' itself is relatively weak," said Dr. William Feldman, co-investigator and spectrometer specialist at the Department of Energy's Los Alamos National Laboratory, NM. "Our data are consistent with the presence of water ice in very low concentrations across a significant number of craters." Using models based on other Lunar Prospector data, Binder and Feldman predict that water ice is confined to the polar regions and exists at only a 0.3 percent to 1 percent mixing ratio in combination with the Moon's rocky soil, or regolith.

How much lunar water ice has been detected? Assuming a water ice depth of about a foot and a half (.5 meters)--the depth to which the neutron spectrometer's signal can penetrate--Binder and Feldman estimate that the data are equivalent to an overall range of 11 million to 330 million tons (10-300 million metric tons) of lunar water ice, depending upon the assumptions of the model used. This quantity is dispersed over 3,600 to 18,000 square miles (10,000-50,000 square kilometers) of water ice-bearing deposits across the northern pole, and an additional 1,800 to 7,200 square miles (5,000-20,000 square kilometers) across the southern polar region. Furthermore, twice as much of the water ice mixture was detected by Lunar Prospector at the Moon's north pole as at the south.

Dr. Jim Arnold of the University of California at San Diego previously has estimated that the most water ice that could conceivably be present on the Moon as a result of meteoritic and cometary impacts and other processes is 11 billion to 110 billion tons. The amount of lunar regolith that could have been "gardened" by all impacts in the past 2 billion years extends to a depth of about 6.5 feet (2 meters), he found. On that basis, Lunar Prospector's estimate of water ice would have to be increased by a factor of up to four, to the range of 44 million to 1.3 billion tons (40 million to 1.2 billion metric tons). In actuality, Binder and Feldman caution that, due to the inadequacy of existing lunar models, their current estimates "could be off by a factor of ten in either direction."

The earlier joint Defense Department-NASA Clementine mission to the Moon used a radar-based technique that detected ice deposits in permanently shadowed regions of the lunar south pole. It is not possible to directly compare the results from Lunar Prospector to Clementine because of their fundamentally different sensors, measurement "footprints," and analysis techniques. However, members of the Clementine science team concluded that its radar signal detected from 110 million to 1.1 billion tons (100 million to 1 billion metric tons) of water ice, over an upper area limit of 5,500 square miles (15,500 square kilometers) of south pole terrain.

There are various ways to estimate the economic potential of the detected lunar water ice as a supporting resource for future human exploration of the Moon. One way is to estimate the cost of transporting that same volume of water ice from Earth to orbit. Currently, it costs about $10,000 to put one pound of material into orbit. NASA is conducting technology research with the goal of reducing that figure by a factor of 10, to only $1,000 per pound. Using an estimate of 33 million tons from the lower range detected by Lunar Prospector, it would cost $60 trillion to transport this volume of water to space at that rate, with unknown additional cost of transport to the Moon's surface.

From another perspective, a typical person consumes an estimated 100 gallons of water per day for drinking, food preparation, bathing and washing. At that rate, the same estimate of 33 million tons of water (7.2 billion gallons) could support a community of 1,000 two-person households for well over a century on the lunar surface, without recycling.

"This finding by Lunar Prospector is primarily of scientific interest at this time, with implications for the rate and importance of cometary impacts in the history and evolution of the Solar System," said Dr. Wesley Huntress, NASA Associate Administrator for Space Science. "A cost-effective method to mine the water crystals from within this large volume of soil would have to be developed if it were to become a real resource for drinking water or as the basic components of rocket fuel to support any future human explorers."

Before the Lunar Prospector mission, historical tracking data from various NASA Lunar Orbiter and Apollo missions had provided evidence that the lunar gravity field is not uniform. Mass concentrations caused by lava which filled the Moon's huge craters are known to be the cause of the anomalies. However, precise maps of lunar mass concentrations covering the moon's equatorial nearside region were the only ones available.

Lunar Prospector has dramatically improved this situation, according to co-investigator Dr. Alex Konopliv of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, CA. Telemetry data from Lunar Prospector has been analyzed to produce a full gravity map of both the near and far side of the moon. Konopliv also has identified two new mass concentrations on the Moon's nearside that will be used to enhance geophysical modeling of the lunar interior. This work has produced the first-ever complete engineering-quality gravity map of the moon, a key to the operational safety and fuel-efficiency of future lunar missions.

"This spacecraft has performed beyond all reasonable expectations," said NASA's Lunar Prospector mission manager Scott Hubbard of Ames. "The findings announced today are just the tip of the iceberg compared to the wealth of information forthcoming in the months and years ahead."

Lunar Prospector is scheduled to continue its current primary data gathering mission at an altitude of 62 miles (100 kilometers) for a period of ten more months. At that time, the spacecraft will be put into an orbit as low as six miles (10 kilometers) so that its suite of science instruments can collect data at much finer resolution in support of more detailed scientific studies. In addition, surface composition and structure information developed from data returned by the spacecraft's Gamma Ray Spectrometer instrument will be a crucial aspect of additional analysis of the polar water ice finding over the coming months.

The third launch in NASA's Discovery Program of lower cost, highly focused planetary science missions, Lunar Prospector is being implemented for NASA by Lockheed Martin, Sunnyvale, CA, with mission management by NASA Ames. The total cost to NASA of the mission is $63 million.

Additional information about the Lunar Prospector mission can be found on the Internet at URL:

Analysis by Ian Randal Strock

So NASA has confirmed the presence of water ice on the moon. What does that mean for the Artemis Project?

Unfortunately, not much more than increased public awareness.

One cubic meter is equivalent to 100 liters of water. Prospector's numbers, as shown in the above press release, give an overall density of water (in the areas where it was found) of 0.24 - 40 liters per cubic meter. That means that, of one cubic meter of regolith, between 60 and 99.76% of it is not water.

The amount of water described in this press release is perhaps better understood by a few translations and comparisons:

The amount of water, 10 - 300 billion liters (3 - 80 billion gallons), is approximately 0.00008 - 0.002% of the amount of water contained in Lake Superior, the largest of the Great Lakes (which contains about 2,935 cubic miles, or 12 quadrillion liters, of water). In other words, if you could fill 50,000 glasses from the water of Lake Superior, you'd be able to fill only one from all the water on the moon. That 1/50,000th, however, is spread over an area that may be as large as Lake Superior (Lake Superior has a surface area of 31,700 square miles, while the lunar water ice is located over an area of between 5,400 and 25,200 square miles).

It's equal to 0.0003 - 0.009% of the amount of water contained in Lake Mead, the largest US reservoir, formed by the construction of the Hoover Dam in 1936.

To be fair, the press release does recognize the fact that the scans could only penetrate to a depth of 0.5 meter, while the expected method of ice's arrival on the moon (meteoric and cometary impact) should allow ice to be present to a depth of two meters.

It also notes that the estimate could be off by a factor of ten. If that margin of error is in our favor, that could mean as much as three trillion liters of water, which is becoming significant. Remember, however, that the error could go the other way.

Overall, it's probably best to look at the moon's water ice content as a scientific resource, rather than a consumable to use when we get there.

Water at the Lunar Poles

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