Sunday, September 27, 2009


Is this week's revelation that water ice is more prevalent on the moon than scientists expected a "game-changer" for future spaceflight, as some experts think? Actually, the rules of the game for going beyond Earth orbit haven't changlatest findings could bring new attention to options in the old playbooks.

       The publication of three studies in Science about ice on the moon, plus yet another study about buried water ice on Mars, comes at an interesting time. More than five years after the White House set a goal of sending humans back to the moon by 2020, an independent panel chaired by retired aerospace executive Norman Augustine is wrapping up a full report that takes a second look at all the options for human spaceflight. (A summary report was sent to the White House earlier this month.)
       At the same time, NASA is on the verge of taking two significant steps in its renewed moon effort: On Oct. 9, the LCROSS probe is due to slam into a crater near the lunar south pole, a dark pit that could contain usable reservoirs of ice. Later next month, the space agency will go ahead with a test launch of its prototype Ares I-X moon rocket.
       For all these reasons, the back-to-the-moon plan - which was turning into a case of "been there, done that 40 years ago" - is starting to look sexy again.
"If we have water, we have the core elements needed to support life," Rick Tumlinson, co-founder of the Space Frontier Foundation, said in a statement issued after the latest moon-ice reports. "H2O is a magic formula: We can drink it, raise crops with it, or even break it down for oxygen to breathe. We can even recombine the hydrogen and oxygen to make rocket propellant. Confirming the widespread existence of moonwater means we have a nearby oasis in space around which we can build the true human communities beyond Earth. There will be flowers on the moon in our lifetimes."
          One unorthodox extraction technique calls for "nuking" the moon with microwaves from lunar orbit, which would turn embedded ice into water vapor. The water would be collected when it refreezes at the surface.

NASA is working on other methods for pulling resources out of lunar soil, and next month, teams will vie for prizes in a contest for moon-digging robots.
Schemes for processing materials from the moon have been kicking around for decades, as illustrated by this concept from 1978. Maybe it's time to blend those 30-year-old dreams with some 21st-century innovation. Developing new technologies for water extraction would fit right in with a step-by-step "flexible path" to deep space - an option that got a sympathetic hearing from Greason and his fellow panel members.
       "The whole question of 'do we do this, or that, or the other thing' is a false choice," he said. "The only question is, 'What order do you do these things in?'"

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