WASHINGTON -- The moon, long thought to be bone dry, has a pond of ice hidden deep inside a crater, scientists disclosed Monday [Dec 2], increasing chances that humans may someday live on its surface.
The discovery came from the Clementine spacecraft, which used sophisticated radar to examine deep craters in the region of the Moon's south pole.
Clementine completed its surveillance of the moon more than two years ago and is now in orbit around the sun, a Pentagon spokesman said.
Pentagon officials joined NASA scientists at a televised press conference on Tuesday [Dec 3] to announce that pockets of water ice had been located in the moon's south polar craters, which remain always in shadow and are extremely cold.
"If you could wish for any one thing there to make it easier to explore with, it would be water," said Anthony Cook, astronomical observer at the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles.
Rick Lehner, spokesman for the Pentagon's Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, said the icy crater is twice the size of Puerto Rico and 13 kilometers deep, or as high as Mount Everest. He said the ice formation is the size of a small lake and is between 10 and 100 feet deep.
Because previous exploration always found the moon's rocks and dust to be bone dry, scientists do not believe the polar ice indicates underground water resources. Instead, the ice probably accumulated slowly over billions of years as comets crashed into the moon's surface.
Comets are largely composed of ice. If a comet lands anywhere on the moon that receives sunlight, the ice soon evaporates and drifts into space. But if it lands in the few places which are always in shadow, the ice can remain frozen and intact virtually forever.
Speakers at the news conference stressed that the amount of available water was not known, but was probably very little by earth standards. Nonetheless, it could prove to be an incredibly valuable and useful resource, providing water for consumption by future human explorers, and also for making rocket fuel, using electrolysis to break water into its constituent elements oxygen and hydrogen -- the same gases that power the space shuttle.
By a remarkable quirk of geography, there exists at the moon's south pole a tall ridge which rings a crater. This ridge is tall enough to rise above the surrounding ice-filled shadow area. It receives sunlight about 85% of the time and is thus a perfect location for placing solar collectors that would power equipment needed to process the ice into usable water or fuel.
"This could become one of the most valuable pieces of real estate in the solar system," a Defense Department spokesman said.
Original file name: CNI - Ice on Moon
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