Finally, on March 5, 1998, NASA announced that the rumors are true. There is water on the moon -- not as much as some optimists had hoped, but perhaps enough to one day support a permanent colony of several thousand human beings.
There is no question that this finding will have a powerful influence on NASA's plans for human (as compared with robotic) space exploration.
"This means that human life could expand to the moon," said Alan Binder, lead scientist for the Lunar Prospector spacecraft. He estimated that a moon base could be started within 8 to 10 years and become a partially self-supporting colony within 15 years.
"We could do it even faster if we pushed it," Binder told reporters. The water is now available and the technology can be developed, he said, but there would have to be a national decision to tackle the project.
How much water is really there remains a matter of speculation. Binder said it could be anywhere from 10 million to 100 million tons. Others put the upper estimate as high as one billion tons. But all agreed that the water is frozen in fragments of ice and mixed with lunar soil over thousands of square miles at both the north and south poles of the moon. It's there, but not exactly waiting in large pools.
William Feldman, an Energy Department scientist, cautioned that what Lunar Prospector actually found was direct evidence of high concentrations of hydrogen at the poles. From this, scientists surmise that water must be present. "The evidence of water ice is quite strong," Feldman said.
"The presence of water is a logical conclusion, but it is a leap of faith," Binder said. "We will have to sample it before we really know for sure."
Leap of faith or not, everyone associated with the project seems convinced it's really water. Feldman told reporters that in the richest deposits at the poles, there could be five gallons of liquid water in every cubic yard of lunar soil. He said it would be a relatively easy matter to extract the water by heating the soil, boiling out the water and then recondensing it.
All of the water on the moon is thought to have come from water-rich comets that crashed over the last several billion years. Only craters in the polar regions are permanently shielded from sunlight, keeping the comet ice frozen after arrival.
Reacting to the NASA announcement, British scientists immediately predicted that the discovery will revitalise U.S. and European space programs and speed up the development of an international orbiting space station.
"The lunar exploration programs will definitely take off again," said Mike Slim of AEA Technology, a British scientific services company that has worked with NASA.
Ice on the moon can provide not only drinking water but also breathable oxygen and the potent hydrogen/oxygen mixture for rocket fuel. With sufficient ice present, the moon can become a bustling laboratory and manufacturing complex and a stepping-off point for ambitious expeditions to Mars and beyond.
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