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Prospects for Exploiting Water on the Moon Excites The Chief of NASA

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

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NASA charts roadmap for human missions to Moon, Mars. Pixabay
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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’s hundreds of billions of tons 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 by direct observation 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.

The discovery holds tantalizing 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.

Bridenstine, a former U.S. Navy fighter pilot and Oklahoma congressman tapped by President Donald Trump in April as NASA chief, spoke about “hundreds of billions of tons” of water ice that he said were now known to be available on the lunar surface.

But much remains to be learned.

NASA Chief
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine (L) makes remarks during the House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee’s joint hearing with the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, in Washington, June 22, 2018. (VOA)

NASA lunar scientist Sarah Noble told Reuters separately by phone that it is still unknown 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-250 degrees Fahrenheit.

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 the 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 reusable. 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,” Bridenstine said.

Moon
The International Space Station, center, passes in front of the Moon in its Earth orbit as photographed from Salgotarjan, Hungary, July 5, 2018. (VOA)

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

Trump last December announced a 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 $19.9 billion budget proposal for NASA for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1 includes $10.5 billion for human space exploration.

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The budget supports development of NASA’s new Space Launch System 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. (VOA)

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The Aborted Mission To Relaunch In December: NASA

In August, a hole appeared in a Soyuz capsule docked to the ISS that caused a brief loss of air pressure and had to be patched.

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Russian Rocket
Astronaut Anne McClain, left, is seen during training at the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory in Houston, Texas. VOA

The American astronaut who will hitch the first ride on a Russian rocket since last month’s aborted launch and dramatic emergency landing is confident that her scheduled trip in December on a rocket that she calls a “workhorse” will go smoothly.

Astronaut Anne McClain, along with a Russian cosmonaut and a Canadian astronaut, will man the Dec. 3 mission. It will be the Russian-made Soyuz-FG’s first crewed flight since Oct. 11, when U.S. astronaut Nick Hague and a Russian cosmonaut landed unharmed on the Kazakh desert steppe after the rocket bound for the International Space Station failed in mid-air two minutes after liftoff.

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Specialists watch broadcasts from the Soyuz spacecraft showing astronaut David Saint-Jacques of Canada, Oleg Kononenko of Russia and astronaut Anne McClain of the U.S. attending the final qualification training for their upcoming space mission in Star City near Moscow, Russia. VOA

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration has relied on Russian rockets to ferry astronauts to the space station since the United States retired its Space Shuttle program in 2011, though the agency has announced plans for test flights carrying two astronauts on commercial rockets made by Boeing and SpaceX next April.

“I do see the incident that happened on Oct. 11 with our launch abort not as a failure but as a success,” McClain told Reuters in a telephone interview from Russia. “It actually bolsters my confidence in the rocket and in the processes that we have.

“We’re confident in the vehicle and getting back to it,” McClain said of the Soyuz rocket, which she called “the workhorse of the space program.”

After lifting off from Kazakhstan’s Soviet-era cosmodrome of Baikonur last month, a damaged sensor caused one of the rocket’s three booster stages to separate improperly, falling inward on the rocket and jolting it off its ascent two miles above ground, Russian investigators announced earlier this month.

Russian Rocket
The Soyuz MS-10 spacecraft carrying the crew of astronaut Nick Hague of the U.S. and cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin of Russia blasts off to the International Space Station (ISS) from the launchpad at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan. VOA

During Assembly

Video from inside the capsule showed the two men being shaken around at the moment the failure occurred, their arms and legs flailing. Russian cosmonaut Alexei Ovchinin can be heard saying, “That was a quick flight.”

The accident was the first serious launch problem experienced by a crewed Soyuz space mission since 1983, when a crew narrowly escaped before a launchpad explosion.

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In August, a hole appeared in a Soyuz capsule docked to the ISS that caused a brief loss of air pressure and had to be patched. Dmitry Rogozin, head of the Russian space agency Roscosmos, has said that it could have been made deliberately by someone during manufacturing or while the craft was in space.

McClain and two other crewmates will launch from the same launchpad in Baikonur, joining the space station’s current three-person crew. (VOA)