How ice on the moon can get us to Mars

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It’s finally confirmed: Water exists on the moon.

The importance of water on the moon, some of it easily extractable, cannot be overstated. Water mined from the moon need not be transported from Earth at great expense. The water can be used for drinking, agriculture, and other purposes by future lunar settlers. 

{mosads}Even more important, water can be refined into liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen, the components of rocket fuel.

The new study based on the 2008-2009 Chandrayaan-1 mission conducted by the Indian Space Research Organization has indicated that ice exists beneath a few millimeters of soil. The findings make extracting it an easier task than ice that might reside deeper beneath the lunar surface.

The recent announcement that water ice resides within the permanently shadowed craters of the lunar poles was a confirmation of something scientists have suspected since the 1960s. As early as the 1994 Clementine mission, indirect evidence indicated the presence of water.

The moon, it seems, is the gateway to the rest of the solar system. The presence of lunar ice makes Earth’s nearest neighbor vitally important to the nation or coalition of nations that proposes to be a space-faring power. 

Spacecraft headed for deep space destinations, such as Mars, could one day stop in lunar orbit to top off their fuel tanks, when the lunar ice is developed into fuel.

Indeed, a study conducted by MIT several years ago indicated that rocket fuel made from lunar water would greatly reduce the cost and complexity of human missions to Mars.

The confirmation of ice on the moon also highlights the wisdom of President Trump’s decision to redirect NASA back to the lunar surface, reversing an Obama policy that bypassed Earth’s nearest neighbor. The findings represent an opportunity and some potential problems.

In 2015, the United States government passed the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act. Title IV of the law states, “A U.S. citizen engaged in commercial recovery of an asteroid resource or a space resource shall be entitled to any asteroid resource or space resource obtained, including to possess, own, transport, use, and sell it according to applicable law, including U.S. international obligations.”

In essence, the United States has given the go-ahead for private companies to mine the moon and other celestial bodies. A company such as Moon Express or Shackleton Energy could extract lunar ice and sell it to any entity it chooses, including a lunar base. The law encourages the development of a commercial space mining sector.

The law is somewhat controversial in space law circles, especially outside the United States.

However, American lawmakers can point to the precedence of the Apollo moon rocks, collected decades ago, and recognized as the property of the United States government. In that spirit, Luxembourg has passed a similar space resource law in hopes of attracting space mining companies to the tiny Grand Duchy.

The United States is not the only great power with ambitions directed toward the moon. China has its own desires to possess and exploit lunar resources. The Chinese have launched two lunar orbiters and a lander in recent years. China plans to land another probe on the lunar surface, this time on the far side of the moon. Eventually, Beijing wants to land people on Earth’s nearest neighbor and start exploiting its resources, including water. 

The problem is that China has proven to be a hostile power on Earth, building artificial islands in the South China Sea in order to control that region. Beijing has conducted cyber espionage efforts to steal intellectual property. Its trade policies can best be described as predatory. It is building a massive military, including space forces, with the goal of challenging the United States and eventually supplanting it as the dominant world power.

No evidence exists that China would be prepared to play nicer in space than it has on Earth, suggesting that Chinese control of lunar resources, especially the water, would pose an existential threat to the United States and the rest of the world. That potential threat places a new perspective on not only plans for America to return to the moon but proposals to create a Space Force, designed to keep the peace in the heavens and to make sure the interests of the United States and her allies are protected.

Mark Whittington is the author of space exploration studies “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond.”

Tags Donald Trump Mark Whittington Mars Moon Moon Express NASA Space exploration

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