NASA’s Next Lunar Rover Will Drill in Search of Ice
It’s been decades since humans set foot on the moon, but we could be going back as part of a push into the outer solar system. Scientists have increasingly thought of the moon as a launchpad for deep space missions, since NASA confirmed water ice exists in craters there. Before we can set up camp, it’s important to know how much water there is and where it is. That’s the goal of NASA’s Resource Prospector, a rover that’s started getting more attention as its expected launch in the early 2020s approaches.
The traditional view of the moon is simply that it’s a dusty, cratered chunk of lifeless rock. Well, it mostly is that, but satellite studies in 2009 confirmed ice in the permanent shadows of some craters. If there’s water there, there might be more of it hiding beneath the surface. A source of water on the moon could support a manned base (potable water and breathable oxygen) while also serving as a source of hydrogen and oxygen rocket fuel.
NASA hopes that the Resource Prospector rover will be the first mining mission on the lunar surface. The vehicle is equipped with a drill and small internal science lab equipped to analyze samples taken from as much as one meter deep. After extracting the samples, the rover deposits them in the mini-lab and heats them to analyze the composition. It will be able to determine if there’s water ice under the lunar surface as well as other compounds like ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, and sulfur dioxide.
Even if is found in more locations around the moon, the way its distributed could affect how useful it is to future missions. If there are large blocks or veins of ice on the moon, that could be mined out easily for use in life support or fuel. However, small specs of ice scattered throughout the regolith would be much harder to harvest.
The results from the Resource Prospector mission could affect not only NASA, but also private space firms. If NASA detects substantial water ice in the soil, someone will probably come up with a way to harvest it. Every bit of mass matters when launching into space, and water weighs eight pounds per gallon. It might be worth a quick lunar stop-off if someone can set up a pitstop on the moon.
NASA is currently targeting 2022 or 2023 for the launch of Resource Prospector. The mission has only cost $ 250 million so far, a relative pittance compared with many projects at the agency. This one could have an impact that far outweighs the cost.