The Indian space agency is attempting to land a spacecraft on the moon’s south pole, a mission that could advance India’s space ambitions and expand understanding of lunar water ice, which may be one of the moon’s most valuable resources. Here’s what’s known about the presence of frozen water on the Moon, and why space agencies and private companies see it as key to lunar colonization, lunar mining and potential missions to Mars.

How did scientists find water on the moon?

Back in the 1960s, before the first Apollo landings, scientists speculated about the possible presence of water on the moon. Samples brought back for analysis by Apollo astronauts in the late 1960s and early 1970s appeared to be dry.

In 2008, Brown University researchers used new techniques to revisit these lunar samples and found hydrogen in tiny volcanic glass beads. In 2009, NASA instruments aboard ISRO’s Chandrayaan-1 probe detected water on the lunar surface.

That same year, another NASA probe hit the South Pole and discovered water ice beneath the lunar surface. An early NASA mission, Lunar Prospector in 1998, found evidence that the highest concentrations of water ice were found in shadowed craters at the South Pole.

Why is water important on the moon?

Scientists are interested in ancient water ice because they can provide a record of lunar volcanoes, material delivered to Earth by comets and asteroids, and the origin of oceans.

If water ice is abundant, it could become a source of drinking water for lunar exploration and help cool equipment.

It can also break down to produce hydrogen for fuel and oxygen for breathing, supporting Mars or Moon mining missions.

The 1967 United Nations Treaty on Outer Space prohibits any country from claiming ownership of the Moon. There is no provision to stop commercial operations.

The United States led the formulation of a set of principles for lunar exploration and resource utilization, namely the “Artemis Accords”, which has 27 signatories. China and Russia have yet to sign.

What makes Antarctica particularly tricky?

Previous attempts to land on the moon have all failed. Russia’s Luna-25 spacecraft was due to land at the South Pole this week, but lost control during its approach and crashed on Sunday.

The South Pole is far from the equatorial regions targeted by previous missions, including the Apollo moon landings, and is filled with craters and deep trenches.

ISRO said its Chandrayaan-3 mission is expected to attempt a landing on Wednesday. A previous Indian mission failed to land safely near the Chandrayaan-3 target area in 2019.

Both the United States and China are planning missions to Antarctica.

© Thomson Reuters 2023


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