Scientists: There is ice on the moon
March 5, 1998
Lunar Prospector animation next to a gravity field map
of the moon
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." 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.
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
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
Animation of the Lunar Prospector with Earth in the
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
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 sq.km.) 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.