The map that will guide the next astronauts to the Moon in search of the water trapped underground and in the darkest areas of some craters has been completed: a resource that could be fundamental for future human colonies. The map is the result of joint research by NASA and the German Space Agency (DLR), based on data from the Sofia (Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy) instrument and published in The Planetary Science Journal.
Water is absolutely one of the most important and precious resources for any human activity and it will also be for future space colonies: it is essential not only to drink, but to grow vegetables and greens in small greenhouses or to build buildings using materials or powders directly on the field. But water weighs a lot and one of the major limitations for any space adventure is the cost of transport into orbit. Identifying the major deposits on the Moon and being able to exploit them, thus finding a way of not having to supply colonies and outposts with water, is one of the major challenges for all the space agencies today working for the return to the Moon and which plan to build real and own colonies.
The presence of water on the Moon was discovered for the first time by the Soviet probe Luna 24, but these were very small traces and the confirmation of the existence of real large deposits had to wait until 2009 with data from the Indian satellite Chandrayaan -1, and a few years later with those of the American Lcross mission. Obviously we are not talking about liquid water, which could not exist on the Moon where there is no atmosphere and gravity is too low to hold the vapour, but about ice trapped between rocks which is preserved above all in the coldest regions, in particularly at the South Pole and in areas of craters that are always in the shade. It is no coincidence that the candidate sites for the descent of the Artemis missions astronauts are right at the South Pole.
Using the data collected in recent years by the Sofia mobile observatory, an innovative telescope developed by NASA and DLR which ended its activities in September 2022, the researchers have created the most detailed map of the water present in the whole region of Lunar South Pole visible from Earth. The map will be very useful for better defining the moon landing sites of the next Artemis missions, starting with the one that will bring the first woman and the next man to our satellite in 2025 or 2026.
The map will also be useful for the Viper mission, the rover that NASA plans to launch in 2024 to closely verify the presence of water and really understand if and how it can be used as a resource. The new studies will also serve to better understand the origin of lunar water, which is believed to come in part from the interaction of the solar wind with some materials found on the surface and which in part would instead have been transported by asteroids.
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