Private space programs aim to prospect for water on the moon

Several private space companies are lining up to use robotic roving technology to prospect for water on the moon, in what a NASA scientist is characterizing as a “water rush,” similar to the California Gold Rush. The companies and NASA are interested in finding and harvesting the water ice believed to exist at the moon’s poles.

“This is like the gold rush that led to the settlement of California,” said Phil Metzger, lead physicist at the Granular Mechanics and Regolith Operations Lab, a division of the Kennedy Space Center’s Surface Systems Office. “This is the water rush.”

Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic Technology signed on this past April for the third phase of a Small Business Innovative Research to prove that the harvesting of the moon’s ice water is possible. Astrobotic currently has a deal with Elon Musk’s SpaceX to place a lander and rover on the Falcon 9 rocket, set to launch October 2015. They, like several other companies, are competing for the $30 million Google Lunar X-prize.

“Our intent is to land on the surface of the moon in October 2015 and find water,” said John Thornton, president of Astrobotic.

But why are NASA and private space industry interested in the moon’s water? Well, water can not only be consumed by humans during space exploration, but can be transformed into breathable air and rocket fuel. And being able to produce those resources on board a rocket or other space vehicle would lower costs.

“There have been studies that have shown you can reduce the mass of a mission to Mars by a factor of somewhere between three and five if you get propellants from the space environment rather than launching them all from Earth,” Metzger said.

“Using these resources is the key to making space travel and habitation affordable and sustainable – we are starting to learn how to live on another planetary surface,” said Rob Mueller, a senior technologist at Kennedy’s Surface Systems Office.

“It’s a really interesting resource when you start to think about how to explore beyond Earth and to use the resources that are already in our solar system,” Thornton said. “This is the first step toward harnessing the resources in the solar system for exploration and sustained presence beyond Earth.”

“None of these have been ground-proofed yet,” Metzger said. “We really need to get vehicles on the surface of the moon prospecting to characterize those deposits, like how do they vary spatially, how do they vary with depth?”

And how will water appear on the moon? “Our best guess is it’s going to be the ice,” Thornton said. “Probably small little pieces of ice mixed in with the regolith.” But the companies involved have to figure out how to create a rover heavy enough so that it stays planted on the Moon’s low-gravity surface, but can also be powered and stay warm enough in the moon’s shadowy areas.

Currently there are no plans to bring the resources back to Earth. Although it would be rather neat to drink some water from the moon, would it not?