The Earth and our moon are made of many of the same ingredients. We know that the moon was likely created out of material from our planet because we share the same isotopes, making us the solar system equivalent of fraternal twins. When the astronauts of Apollo 11 took off from Earth 50 years ago today, they were visiting a long-lost relative.
In the images sent back by Apollo 11, the moon looked like an airless wasteland. But like the Earth, the moon also has water, as well as hydrated minerals called hydroxyl. This abundance of hydrogen could have been delivered in a myriad of ways. During the formation of the Earth and the Moon, a water delivery system was created from comets and asteroids impacting the surface, and from the interaction of sunlight with hydrogen molecules on the lunar surface.
While scientists know that the Moon is covered with a variety of hydrogen, they are unclear about exactly how much water is on the Moon, or even where it is located. Missions that have orbited the Moon have done basic surveys but have so far been unable to provide full clarification. When NASA’s SLS rocket launches in the near future, its payload will include a cubesat — a tiny satellite — called LunaH-Map that will begin to map the water around the Moon.
So let’s say in 10 years, scientists have a complete understanding of where the hydroxyl and H2O are located. What can be done with that water?
It’s not just for drinking. There’s a concept in space exploration called “In Situ Resource Utilization,” or ISRU, which basically means going to a place and utilizing the materials that are already there. Water on the Moon can be used to make rocket fuel, as well as help shield spacecraft from radiation exposure. And NASA is not the only organization that wants to know where all the hydrogen is hiding — many private companies have plans to grow full-fledged businesses out of lunar rocket fuel, potentially even selling water to NASA for long-duration trips to…