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Yes, there's ice on the moon. But it's not the 1st lunar resource we'll use.

An image of the moon's south pole shows illumination over time, with the depths of Shackleton Crater near the center of the frame.
An image of the moon's south pole shows illumination over time, with the depths of Shackleton Crater near the center of the frame.
(Image: © NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University)

Listen to a couple ideas about humanity's future on the moon and you'll likely hear about the game-changing potential of a substance you probably have in your freezer: water ice.

Would-be explorers have high hopes they can harvest ice hidden below the moon's surface, both for astronauts to drink and to make rocket fuels to make round trips cheaper. But the image of robots tearing up the lunar surface and processing frozen water out from other compounds skips a step in considering resources on the moon. Ice will never be the first resource humans use on the moon, experts emphasized at a recent scientific conference.

Instead, it will be sunlight.

"The first and easiest resource that we have there is solar energy," Jake Bleacher, a geologist and chief exploration scientist at NASA headquarters in Washington, said during the Lunar Surface Science Virtual Workshop held digitally on May 28.

Related: Amazing moon photos from NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter

Energy means power, particularly for operating instruments on the lunar surface, as well as for supporting the long-term base on the moon that NASA plans to build as part of the agency's Artemis program, the short-term goal of which is to land humans at the south pole by 2024.

The two resources are direct opposites and both rely on how the moon aligns with the sun. Unlike Earth's, the axis on which the moon rotates is more or less perpendicular to the plane of the solar system, which contains the sun, Earth and moon. It's Earth's axial tilt that gives us seasons, as one hemisphere tilts to receive more sunlight, making incredibly long days at the pole, then much less for a near-constant polar night.

Not so on the moon. There, the daily cycle is constant. At the poles, the lack of tilt means light and dark are governed in large part by terrain, as more elevated locations block sunlight from reaching lower areas.

On the dark side of this divide are permanently shadowed regions, many in the craters that scar the moon's surface, where temperatures are always cold enough that water ice remains frozen. On the light side of the divide are locations sometimes nicknamed the "peaks of eternal light" — and it's here that the first lunar resource harvesters would go, exploration experts say.

"The polar location, which was specified by the [Artemis program mandate from the National] Space Council, is enabling because of the existence of the locations of near-permanent sunlight," Sam Lawrence, a planetary scientist at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, said during his own presentation on the same day. "It is the illumination that's a resource."

Nevertheless, it's the potential for water ice that prompts the most discussion during these meetings and stars in NASA's written visions for how lunar exploration will become sustainable under the Artemis program.

"We heard a lot about the polar volatiles story and, to be sure, it's a good one," Lawrence said. "But it's the illumination that is the resource we're actually going after with the Artemis missions."

Email Meghan Bartels at mbartels@space.com or follow her @meghanbartels. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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  • Maybe, but humans can't drink sunlight.
    Reply
  • foureyedbuzzard
    There is no perpetual "dark side" of the moon. A lunar day is 29.5 days long, similar to an earth day being 24 hours long. Yes, it's darker at the poles due to inclination, with the sun rising lower in the lunar sky, but again, just like the earth. If the sun rises where you are on the moon on June 1st, it will set on June 15th.
    Reply
  • Marcel
    Lunar regolith will be the first resource utilized on the Moon. Outpost on the lunar surface will have to be protected from cosmic radiation, micrometeorites, extreme temperature fluctuations and major solar storms. It will be easy to protect an outpost of the surface of the moon by simply covering the pressurized structure with lunar regolith just a few meters deep.

    Marcel
    Reply
  • Helio
    Both the crater and the ice are the key resources since sunlight is almost everywhere. The crater offers some protection for any facility but water is critical for any hope of a facility that would fit a budget of any kind. Sunlight too is critical, of course.

    If I may offer a pedantic nit --the energy we get from sunlight is the part that isn't of the "illumination" since, by definition, illumination is the light that leaves the sensors, not the light that becomes converted into useful energy.
    Reply
  • rod
    Can they make ice cream too now on the Moon? :)
    Reply
  • Truthseeker007
    I remember being call a "conspiracy theorist" a few years ago for saying there is water on the moon. About time they finally admitted it in 2018. :rolleyes: I have NO doubt there is much more on the moon then they are telling you about.

    August 20, 2018
    In the darkest and coldest parts of its polar regions, a team of scientists has directly observed definitive evidence of water ice on the Moon's surface. These ice deposits are patchily distributed and could possibly be ancient. At the southern pole, most of the ice is concentrated at lunar craters, while the northern pole's ice is more widely, but sparsely spread.https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/08/180820203638.htm
    Reply
  • Truthseeker007
    foureyedbuzzard said:
    There is no perpetual "dark side" of the moon. A lunar day is 29.5 days long, similar to an earth day being 24 hours long. Yes, it's darker at the poles due to inclination, with the sun rising lower in the lunar sky, but again, just like the earth. If the sun rises where you are on the moon on June 1st, it will set on June 15th.

    By dark side I think they mean the side you never see. The Moon is in synchronous rotation with Earth, and thus always shows the same side to Earth, the near side. Don't you wonder what goes on the dark side?;)Then again China's Chang'E-4 was supposed to find that out. Like China would tell us anyway what they found. :rolleyes:
    Reply
  • David kay
    May not be solar, alternative is nuclear reactor. No need for lots of shielding, already cosmic radiation, a little more won't matter. No fear of radiation in atmosphere, is none. Just run a long high voltage line to colony a distance away. Solar panels vulnerable without an atmosphere, while nuke reactor can be placed safer underground crater near ice
    Reply