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Scientists: There is ice on the moon

Lunar Prospector animation next to a gravity field map of the moon  
March 5, 1998
Web posted at: 4:46 p.m. EST (2146 GMT)

MOUNTAIN VIEW, California (CNN) -- Pockets of ice crystals that could eventually be used to facilitate space travel have been found beneath the lunar surface by a robot survey spacecraft that has spent the last month mapping the moon, scientists at Ames Research Center announced Thursday.

"The numbers we give you today have to be viewed as preliminary," said Dr. Alan Binder, the principal investigator for the Lunar Prospector mission. But, he added, "The results are correct. There is water." icon 323K/29 sec. AIFF or WAV sound

If water could be mined on the moon, it would ease the need to send a supply from Earth. Water weighs eight pounds a gallon. It could take thousands of gallons to maintain a permanent moon complex.

The presence of water could also enable astronauts to make their own breathing oxygen and to use the moon as sort of a space-based filling station. Water can be split into its chemical components, hydrogen and oxygen. Oxygen could be used for breathing, and the combination of hydrogen and oxygen can be used as a rocket fuel.

Between the moon and the sun
Animation depicting the Lunar Prospector between the moon and sun  

Precise water volume estimates will be delayed until the Lunar Prospector, which began orbiting around the moon about seven weeks ago, has collected more data.

However, Binder said, "We think we are seeing something on the order of between 10 million tons to a few hundred million tons of water. That's a significant quantity. If you picked up a cubic yard of soil in the cold areas at the pole, you might find as much as one, two, maybe five gallons of water per cubic yard. This is not a lot, but nevertheless, it is a significant amount."

The 100 million metric ton estimate is equivalent to a lake about 2 miles on each side, and about 35 feet deep.

NASA officials said it was unclear whether the water, in the form of ice and apparently confined to the polar regions, would prove useful as a "filling station" for future missions.

Lunar Prospector
Animation of the Lunar Prospector with Earth in the background  

The data from the spacecraft Lunar Prospector show it is scattered in small deposits across thousands of square miles of the lunar poles, with the north pole showing about 50 percent more water deposits than the south pole.

Dr. William Feldman, of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, said that if their estimates are right, and the moon's soil is about 2 meters (6 feet) deep, then scientists should find at least 500 million metric tons of ice crystals at the two poles combined.

Feldman and others estimated there could be 11 million to 330 million tons of ice dispersed across about 18,000 square miles (46,800 sq. kilometers) of the north pole and about 7,200 square miles (18,700 of the south pole.

Data the Lunar Prospector has sent back to Earth in its first nine weeks of operations have also helped scientists generate an exact gravity map of the moon, which will let future missions fly to the moon with the right amount of fuel instead of the rough estimates currently used.


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