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Ice on the moon
The image shows the distribution of surface ice at the Moon’s south pole (left) and north pole (right), detected by NASA’s Moon Mineralogy Mapper instrument. Blue represents the ice locations, plotted over an image of the lunar surface, where the grayscale corresponds to surface temperature. Darker shades represent colder areas, while lighter shades indicate warmer zones. (NASA Graphic)

Newly published research lays out a map that traces water ice deposits at the poles of the moon — and points to prime territory for future lunar settlements.

The findings, detailed in this week’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, are based on data from NASA’s Moon Mineralogy Mapper, or M3, which was placed aboard India’s Chandrayaan-1 lunar orbiter for its 2008-2009 mission.

The M3 team, led by the University of Hawaii’s Shuai Li, reports that most of the ice at the south pole lies in permanently shadowed craters near the poles, where the warmest temperatures are never higher than 250 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. In some areas, frozen water appeared to account for about 30 percent of the soil content.

Ice in the moon’s north polar region is more widely spread, but at sparser concentrations.

The findings are consistent with decades’ worth of data, including observations made during the Clementine mission in the 1990s. The newly reported evidence is firmer than that uncovered by past missions, however, thanks to M3’s ability to measure three light absorption signatures for water ice in near-infrared wavelengths.

Scientists suspect that the ice was trapped in the shadows of lunar craters over the course of billions of years. Water molecules could have been delivered to the moon by asteroids and comets, stirred up by the cosmic impacts that followed, and then preserved in cold, dark shadows.

Lunar exploration and settlement have been targeted as long-term priorities for space exploration, by the Trump administration as well as commercial ventures including Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin.

Li and his colleagues acknowledged in their paper that the ice deposits could be of more than academic interest. “These ice deposits might be utilized as an in situ resource in future exploration of the moon,” they wrote.

At a space conference in May, Bezos took special note of the moon’s polar ice deposits as a resource that could be converted into drinkable water, breathable air and propellants for refuelable rockets.

“It’s almost like somebody set this up for us,” Bezos joked.

NASA is working with Blue Origin and other commercial partners to send an increasingly capable series of robotic landers to the lunar surface, starting as early as next year. Blue Origin’s proposed lander, nicknamed Blue Moon, could deliver up to 5 tons of payload to the moon starting in the mid-2020s. Blue Moon would be hefty enough to ferry people down to the lunar surface.

The space agency’s plans also include building a Lunar Orbiting Platform – Gateway in the vicinity of the moon, which could serve as a jumping-off point for lunar surface missions or outward expeditions to Mars and its moons.

Here’s a Twitter sampler of reactions to the latest findings:

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