This outstanding view of the full moon was photographed from the Apollo 11 spacecraft during its trans-Earth journey homeward. When this picture was taken, the spacecraft was already 10,000 nautical miles away. Picture: NASA
This outstanding view of the full moon was photographed from the Apollo 11 spacecraft during its trans-Earth journey homeward. When this picture was taken, the spacecraft was already 10,000 nautical miles away. Picture: NASA

Los Angeles/Washington— Nasa administrator Jim Bridenstine has a vision for renewed and "sustainable" human exploration of the moon, and he cites the existence of water on the lunar surface as a key to chances for success.

"We know that there are hundreds of billions of tonnes of water ice on the surface of the moon," Bridenstine said in a Reuters TV interview in Washington on Tuesday, a day after Nasa unveiled its analysis of data collected from lunar orbit by a spacecraft from India.

The findings, published on Monday, mark the first time scientists have confirmed the presence of water on the moon’s surface — in hundreds of patches of ice deposited in the darkest and coldest reaches of its polar regions — by direct observation.

The discovery holds tantalising implications for efforts to return humans to the moon for the first time in half a century. The presence of water offers a potentially valuable resource not only for drinking but for producing more rocket fuel and oxygen to breathe.

We want tugs that go from Earth orbit to lunar orbit to be re-usable. We want a space station around the moon to be there for a very long period of time
Nasa administrator Jim Bridenstine

Bridenstine, a former US Navy fighter pilot and Oklahoma congressman tapped by US President Donald Trump in April as Nasa chief, spoke about "hundreds of billions of tonnes" of water ice that he said were now known to be available on the lunar surface. But much remains to be learned.

Nasa lunar scientist Sarah Noble told Reuters separately by phone that it is still unknown how much ice is actually present on the moon and how easy it would be to extract in sufficient quantities to be of practical use. "We have lots of models that give us different answers. We can’t know how much water there is," she said, adding that it will ultimately take surface exploration by robotic landers or rovers, in more than one place, to find out.

Most of the newly confirmed frozen water is concentrated in the shadows of craters at both poles, where the temperature never rises higher than minus 156.67°C.

Making moon exploration sustainable

Although the moon was long believed to be entirely dry or nearly devoid of moisture, scientists have found increasing evidence in recent years that water exists there. A Nasa rocket sent crashing into a permanently shadowed lunar crater near the moon’s south pole in 2009 kicked up a plume of material from beneath the surface that included water.

A study published the following year in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences concluded that water is likely widespread within the moon’s rocky interior, in concentrations ranging from 64 parts per billion to five parts per million.

Bridenstine spoke to Reuters about making the next generation of lunar exploration a "sustainable enterprise", using rockets and other space vehicles that could be used again and again. "So we want tugs that go from Earth orbit to lunar orbit to be re-usable. We want a space station around the moon to be there for a very long period of time, and we want landers that go back and forth between the space station around the moon and the surface of the moon."

Nasa’s previous programme of human moon exploration ended with the Apollo 17 mission in 1972.

Last December, Trump announced the goal of sending American astronauts back to the moon, with the ultimate goal of establishing "a foundation for an eventual mission to Mars". The Trump administration’s $19.9bn budget proposal for Nasa for the fiscal year beginning October 1 includes $10.5bn for human space exploration.

The budget supports development of Nasa’s new Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and the Orion spacecraft designed to carry a crew into space. The administration envisioned a SLS/Orion test flight around the moon without a crew in 2020, followed by a fly-around mission with a crew in 2023.

As part of the budget proposal, Nasa also is planning to build the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway — a space station in moon orbit — in the 2020s. Nasa said the power and propulsion unit, its initial component, is targeted to launch in 2022.

In May, Nasa canceled a lunar rover that was under development, a project envisioned as the first mission to conduct mining somewhere other than Earth.

Reuters

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