A New Dawn Arising

As far back through antiquity as Aristotle it was theorized that the physical world in which we live is made up of atoms. And though the ancients’ mastery of deductive reasoning led them to great leaps of enlightenment, it was not enough to accurately describe reality. “Close, but no cigar,” as they say. Complete atomic theories forged in the fires of rigorous scientific examination would have to wait more than two millennia.

The modern scientific method is, in simplest terms, a three-step process: observe; theorize; and test. It’s proven to be a very successful way of discovering nature’s secrets, but the process is far from finished when theories have passed this stage. They must withstand rigorous scientific debate and challenges, in which peers from throughout the discipline examine every aspect of the experiment from the data to the underlying mathematics and finally to the conclusions. Not until it has survived this intense scrutiny can we embrace a theory and allow it to be taken as a law.

Albert Einstein, whose theories of the macroscopic world have revolutionized our understanding of time and gravity and Werner Heisenberg, one of the founders of quantum mechanics, had some of the most heated debates in scientific history over their theories. Challenges – even angry and passionate – among piers in science form a necessary fixture in its discourse and one that we relax at our own peril.

Today the peer review process serves us well as an absolutely essential part of science. Because our understanding of the universe is built in layers, with one set of laws building upon earlier ones iteratively, imagine the consequences of discovering that something we’ve taken as a fundamental law is flawed, or worse, false. Such an event would be catastrophic, so the importance of remaining diligent with peer review cannot be over stated.

Yet as strong as this process tends to be, there are those rare times when it breaks down. After all, it is a human endeavor, and humans are fallible, so when a breakdown does occur, the wise man pauses to understand why and how. He endeavors to prevent it from ever happening again.

We see just such a break down occurring in recent history following the Apollo lunar flights of the late 1960s and early 1970s when samples of rocks were returned from the moon and examined by scores of scientists. When the lunar dust settled and the papers had all been published, the scientific world proclaimed that the moon was more arid than the driest desert on earth.

That’s the way things stood for four decades: a kind of lunar science dark ages in which notions of returning to the moon, of building upon those gains so hard won at the expense of much national treasure and three astronaut’s lives, would be bluntly dismissed. Aside from the fact that the political goals behind the missions – sadly, their biggest driver – had been achieved, it simply made no scientific sense to return. Mankind was beginning to cast an eye around the solar system for a place where he could explore and perhaps settle. Any serious consideration of where next to go would necessarily have to include the concept of ISRU, or in-situ resource utilization. It’s what early pioneers called living off the land, and the idea behind it is simple. Exploration must be carried out with attention to its costs, which are kept at a minimum when consumables and materiel can be found and used at your destination. Each pound carried with the expedition costs money, so the less you take with you, the smaller the cost and the more exploration can be accomplished and made sustainable. With water being one of the most important and costly resources of any expedition, and with the lunar surface having been found utterly devoid of it, the moon was unceremoniously written off. Our nearest neighbor in space, what many call the eighth content, was now considered a dead end.

Just as the dark ages on Earth were followed by the Renaissance, the lunar dark age has given way to a enlightenment. 2009 saw new, robotic missions sent to the moon. They carried state-of-the-art instruments and beamed down to Earth volumes of new data to be examined by a fresh eyes. Within months, those science teams were sending out an electrifying discoveries that would send shock waves across the world. Water! Water had been discovered trapped in the permanently shadowed craters of the lunar South pole! More analysis revealed that the entire moon is covered in a thin veneer of water deposited by the solar wind, making it a renewable source.

The really big shocker was yet to come. A Brown University freshman! by the name of Thomas Weinreich published a paper in a May, 2011 edition of the journal Science in which he announced the results of a study he had recently conducted on 40-year-old rock samples from the moon. And his findings? Water! It had been there all along.

Only five years before, Alberto Saal, a professor at Brown, and some collaborators had applied to NASA to look for water in Apollo rocks. Colleagues laughed at his obvious naiveté.

How is it that so many brilliant minds could have concluded with such certainty for so long that the moon was utterly arid? Two words: Group Think. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, Group Think is “a pattern of thought characterized by self-deception, forced manufacture of consent, and conformity to group values and ethics.” This is precisely the reason behind our long-lived ignorance of water on the moon. Those early assertions that no water existed in lunar rock samples should have been challenged and would have had it not been for the very the arrogance that Dr. Saal encountered. It was Group Think that effectively shut down the peer-review process for decades.

As a new dawn arises on lunar science and we again look towards the moon as our next home away from Earth and source of natural resources and new opportunities, it’s important that we weigh and consider the aftermath of a certain pitfall in the human psyche. What it cost us was 40 years and an entire generation of would-be astronauts and pioneers left orphaned when Apollo was ended. We cannot allow this to happen again, so it behooves us to scan our horizons – and those hidden places right under our noses – for signs that scientific consent is being manufactured. Can you think of any? Perhaps a theory on how the Earth traps and releases energy? Could there be a theory out there in which it is proclaimed that the time for debate has passed on a science that is “settled”?

Think about it.

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To Profit and Beyond

January 26, 2011 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Commercial Space Flight 

Man’s greatest discoveries have most often led to great commercial gains – some more rapidly than others. Take, for example, the mere decade it took to go from Kitty Hawk and Orville Wright’s maiden twelve seconds in the air, during which time Wright traveled only 120 feet, to the first commercial air flight, piloted by Tony Jannus, which traveled from St. Petersburg to Tampa on January 1st, 1914. We all know how many industries have been developed since that time, that are either directly or indirectly related to air travel. If it were not for entrepreneurship and the private sector, flying might never have been developed to the extent it has for the general public.

Though flight was the foundation for space travel and lunar exploration, leaving Earth’s gravitational pull has been a very different business model. But all that is changing. Back when Neil Armstrong’s left boot hit lunar pay dirt on July 20th 1969, those of us fortunate enough to remember it probably did not know that the Apollo missions were costing the United States seven percent of its national budget. It has been almost forty years that Gene Cernan has held the title “The last man to step foot on the moon,” and that’s in no small part because of stricter government funding. The technology and manpower exist to return man to the moon, but until recently, national space programs were the only routes to get there. However, with the advent of business interests in space and lunar exploration, private funding is increasingly becoming available, which will allow man to truly understand the resources beyond Earth’s atmosphere, as well as to explore and expand possibilities of extended life support in space.

The private sector’s time has come. Lunar exploration has yielded interesting finds about resources for which mankind has a pressing need. With some of Earth’s resources rapidly depleting, both governments and businesses alike have been searching for more methods to recycle dwindling resources like water and petroleum, and to develop new ones such as bio fuels. But recent lunar exploration has proven what was earlier doubted, namely that the Moon has both large quantities of water, which may be made potable and a resource for hydrogen, as well as the Helium 3 ion, a crucial element of fusion power that is almost non-existent on Earth. Fusion power, unlike nuclear power, creates almost no waste, and could become mankind’s primary power source if harvested sufficiently. Still further, lunar platinum could bridge a large gap in the amount of the metal needed to convert all current internal combustion engines over to hydrogen power cell technology. As it stands, all the platinum on earth would not be enough to fill that gap, but the moon may have many times that here at home.

Obviously, with many national space programs lacking adequate funding, the private sector sees a great opportunity in lunar exploration. Lunar exploration can offer not only a significant harvesting ground for vital resources, but can also function as an outpost of the Earth for further space exploration. With only a single second time lag in communications, the Moon is close enough to our planet to allow man to control robots and other machines remotely, and can conveniently serve as a much-needed launching pad for any future private or national deep space telescope and research facilities. And along the way, a space-based infrastructure will be built to support these flights, reducing the cost of repeat flights and making the entire venture profitable and thus sustainable.

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One More Giant Leap

NASA announced late last week that they are seeking to buy data from commercial providers that, “reduces risks for future human and robotic lander designs by employing these missions as unique demonstration testbeds,” according to their Broad Agency Announcement. Through their Innovative Lunar Demonstrations Data (ILDD) program, the agency will award $30.1M to private companies already vying for the Google Lunar X Prize, itself valued at an additional $30M. With this latest incentive, private companies now stand to make over $60M for successfully landing on the moon.

The lunar rover built by Astrobotic Technology is set to launch in late 2010 aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 bound for the Apollo 11 landing site. The mission has been dubbed Tranquility Trek.

This is great news for lead contender Astrobotic Technology (see The Undiscovered Country, June 23, 2010 STN), a Carnegie Mellon University spin-off company devoted to robotic exploration of the Moon. They’re already well into the hardware testing phase of their lunar rover, set to launch aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 late in 2012 bound for the Apollo 11 landing site. The mission, dubbed “Tranquility TrekTM,” will place a 160-lb, 5-foot-tall rover on the lunar surface for 10 to 12 days until lunar night fall. When the sun rises two Earth weeks later, the solar-powered robot will re-awaken to resume from its deep freeze hibernation after having experienced temperatures plummeting to -298 degrees Fahrenheit. This will be an important milestone for the technology since their plan is to follow on with additional robots to “prospect for the water ice and other volatiles at the Moon’s poles, which can be transformed into propellant to refuel spacecraft for return flights to Earth, doubling the productivity of human missions,” said Dr. William “Red” Whittaker, Astrobotic founder and director of CMU’s Field Robotics Center. There in the permanently-shadowed craters of the poles, robots must face the most bitter cold yet recorded in the solar system. This first demonstration flight will serve as a practice run for the deep freeze of the poles. And if these robots do well, they can serve as a first generation of a sort of space-based hunting dog to help in those tasks too dangerous for humans.

Design for a commercial lunar base. Could this be the shape of things to come and only just around the corner?: image courtesy Bigelow Aerospace

Still further, in an exclusive statement to SpaceTalkNOW, Dr. Whittaker said that his company also has plans to explore newly-discovered features on the Moon called “skylights,” (see A New Decade and Infinite Possibilities, January 11, 2010 STN; The Undiscovered Country, June 23, 2010 STN; and Lunar Scientists Need You, July 25, 2010 STN). These features are the collapsed ceilings of long-dead lava tubes, and they hold much promise as possible sources of lunar water as well as for natural shelter against the radiation environment.

This new NASA lunar program represents a giant leap forward in fostering lunar-based commerce around which the settlement of our nearest neighbor in space could arise. Like the COTS and CCDev commercial contracts before it, NASA will not use ILDD to take ownership of any flight or ground systems like was done during the Apollo program when the agency took full ownership of the Saturn rocket, Command Module and Lunar Lander and all their supporting technology. When Apollo died, those vehicles — so hard won — died with it. But this time, things are different. It’s a perfect example of NASA playing the role for which it is so well suited: that of macroeconomic enabler. The ILDD program’s money will spur innovation in the complimentary areas of human and robotic space flight, which is then reinvested to advance the state of the art still further. Private enterprise can then follow NASA to the moon and supply much of the agency’s needs for technology, materiel and logistical support. It’s a match made in heaven.

Once set in motion, lunar-based commerce can grow exponentially, making use of the nearly limitless, untapped natural resources to be found there not only for supplying the base there but for providing Earth with minerals such as Platinum (see Moonrush by Dennis Wingo, ISBN-13: 978-1894959100) which, though rare on Earth, is abundant on the Moon and could serve as a highly efficient catalyst for the first generation of hydrogen-powered, fuel cell automobiles.

Once a critical mass in space commerce is reached, it opens the door to the spread of space tourism, first from the short-duration, sub-orbital flights begun by Virgin Galactic to low earth orbit and then to the surface of the moon. The progression could be remarkably fast given the right set of circumstances. Already, Robert Bigelow of Bigelow Aerospace has plans for establishing the solar system’s first hotel on another planetary body. This can happen in our lifetime! All that is needed is the wise investment of both public and private funds. Uncle Sam and private industry can make great partners if they work together. Now the question is, do those in charge on either side recognize the potential? The NASA folks at the Constellation office from which ILDD will be funded obviously “get it.” But will Congress and the Administration pull the proverbial rug out from under them?

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A New Decade and Infinite Possibilities

January 11, 2010 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Commercial Space Flight 

The outset of the last decade was met by a mixed sense of hope and dread. Some of us were convinced that the world as we knew it, our transportation, our communication, our energy, the bulk of our infrastructure then (as it is now) controlled by computers, would fall victim to the ever-publicized Y2K bug and come crashing down around our ears. The Dot-Com bubble was at its peak as venture capital continued to pour into and feed an explosion of commercial growth in the Internet. That bubble would burst by March, however, with an estimated loss of $5 Trillion in market value. Still, things stabilized after a time of adjustments.

Before the close of 2000, the Human Genome Project produces the first available assembly of the genome, promising quantum leaps in medicine; Expedition 1 moves in as the first resident crew of the International Space Station, a US-lead, international effort in new space-based research and promising advances in medical and materials technology and serving as a beach head for all other points in the solar system; And as California suffers the first of two years of rolling blackouts and the notorious ILOVEYOU computer worm tears its way through millions of computers worldwide, NASA prepares for another series of Mars launches including Mars Odyssey, the Spirit and Opportunity rovers, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and the Phoenix Mars Lander. Clearly, the emphasis at this point is Mars. Among the policy makers at the agency, it’s taken for granted that our nearest neighbor in space, the moon, is nothing more than a celestial backwater, a dead end not worthy of any serious consideration or funding for human exploration, and lunar robotic space flight is all but completely stymied by a mars-centric culture. In the decade of the aughts, missions to the moon flown by non-US entities outnumber NASA’s by 2 to 1. Within NASA, missions to Mars outnumber those to the moon by 3 to 1. During that entire ten-year period, NASA sent only 2 spacecraft – arguably but a single mission since they flew literally on the same rocket and shared many objectives.

But oh what a difference a single decade makes. The day we entered Y2K America’s only space transportation system was a space shuttle that had proven itself far less capable and safe than the capsule-based system it replaced, leaving humans stranded in the purgatory of low earth orbit; the idea of commercial human spaceflight – the vehicle through which we would finally realize the painfully elusive goal of affordable access to orbit – was barely a dream; and we still operated under the delusive notion that water – critical for making any manned, off-earth venture affordable – found in the lunar rock samples gathered by Apollo astronauts was mere contamination from earth. On that day the machines, infrastructure and vision for establishing a permanent human presence on another world were no nearer our grasp than they were at the outset of the space age four decades earlier. The wheels of progress in space had gotten hopelessly bogged down. But today? Today is a very different day.

We enter this new decade vastly better equipped than the last. The dust of ignorance has been wiped from our eyes, and we can clearly see a fact that, in one fell swoop, brings within our reach the permanent human settlement in space that once evaded us: the moon is not the barren wasteland it was once believed to be. We can indeed live off the land, as it were, because we now know it to harbor the raw materials we need. The lunar surface contains ample amounts of water for drinking and for conversion into air for breathing. This singular and very recent discovery was a game-changing event! It meant that the round-trip travel time between earth and our first outpost could be placed at 6 days rather than the year it would be for Mars; a fact that, in turn, enabled the commercial sector to participate. And it is the commercial sector that is key to sustaining human space flight, because it reduces the cost so dramatically.

Space travel is no longer the one-dimensional construct it was. The emergence of commercial human space flight brings with it the financial and technological agility so desperately needed for the advancement of human exploration as a whole. The civil and commercial human space flight sectors work increasingly in concert to achieve, together, our new goals in space.

And with new goals have come a change in the technology we’ll use to carry them out. In an ironic turn of events, the space shuttle is being supplanted by a much-advanced version of its predecessor, the capsule. Even neglecting the glaring deficiencies in safety suffered by the shuttle, it’s a change that had to occur since the shuttle is unable to travel to the moon or any place else in the solar system. It was never designed for such a flight.

Both NASA and the private sector now have their own designs for a capsule. And despite what you may have read, they are not mutually exclusive nor will they compete with one another. Each has a distinct and important mission.

NASA is building the Orion and Altair spacecraft. Similar in concept to the Apollo Command Module but with greatly advanced systems  and double the crew capacity, Orion is designed as an interplanetary transport. It will carry astronauts from earth orbit  to the moon and beyond. Once it reaches its destination, the crew will transfer to and descend to the lunar surface via Altair, itself conceptually similar to the Apollo Lunar Module but also with pronounced advancements over its predecessor. Together these vehicles comprise the next-generation deep space exploration system. Their point of departure is earth orbit, but how do they get from the surface to orbit? That’s where the commercial sector comes in.

A company based in Hawthorne, California named SpaceX is taking up the task of producing the vehicle that can carry both cargo and crew to orbit. Its Founder and CEO Elon Musk, who also co-founded Paypal, has long carried a deep passion for human space flight and realized the importance of reducing its cost. Using his own money, he began developing the Falcon series of rockets as well as a companion spacecraft called Dragon. After several successful flights of the smaller Falcon 1 rocket, SpaceX is now preparing for the maiden launch of its Falcon 9, which will go on to regularly deliver cargo to the International Space Station and has the ability to carry crew as well when NASA gives its approval to begin development of the additional systems for Dragon necessary to support humans, such as the crew escape system.

Here for the first time we see civil and commercial space working together, providing different but complimentary systems that support the overarching goal of putting people on another world. The private sector provides transport to earth orbit and the logistical support surrounding that leg, and the civil sector provides the advanced systems needed for crew transport to the final planetary destination. It’s a beautiful symmetry.

So now that we’ve turned our sights to the moon, now what? Exactly what regions of the moon are we to explore first? And what will be the basic needs to be met for such an outpost?

Recent discoveries have uncovered water in prodigious amounts both in and around the Cabeus crater at the lunar south pole. Extraction of that water from within the interior of Cabeus and surrounding craters presents technological challenges we’ve not yet faced. First is the simple matter of descending into a crater. It’s never been done, so it will be necessary to develop new — or modify currently-existing, earth-based — technology to perform that task. Second is the extremely cold temperatures to be found inside the craters. At approximately -370 degrees fahrenheit (-223 degrees Celsius), they are the coldest regions we have yet to encounter in the solar system. Fortunately, however, we can get our feet wet (pun intended) on the simpler task of extracting water from the much more accessible and warmer areas near the crater rims.

But there may be an alternative — or additional, depending on how you look at it — source of lunar water. Less than three months ago, the Japanese Kaguya spacecraft took the first picture of what’s been termed a “skylight.” Having long been suspected by lunar scientists as a fairly common structure on the moon, a skylight is an opening to a lava tube. Vulcanism on the moon died out billions of years ago, so these tubes have spent the intervening eons vacant and hollow. In places, their roofs have collapsed, exposing the interior, and it may be possible that the same mechanism that deposits water into the cold traps within craters in the lunar polar regions has also left water here. Possible advantages provided by skylights are that they can be found at much lower latitudes, lending to better line-of-sight communications with earth, and that they could serve as natural shelters against solar storms, which can deliver intense doses of radiation.

As important as water and oxygen to the outpost will be power. Given that a single lunar night lasts for two weeks, solar cells are clearly not a viable source of energy; therefore, nuclear power is a must. Already NASA is working on the development of such a system, along with new building construction techniques, lunar surface vehicles for transporting astronauts between them, and many other technologies that will be necessary for sustaining a lunar outpost leading to a settlement. And here again, the commercial sector will be capable of providing logistical support, thereby reducing cost in much the same way it does with arctic bases on earth. As that commercial presence in space increases, so does the demand for jobs. Speaking in relative terms, we’re headed for a population explosion in space, made possible by a hand full of dreamers, of bold entrepreneurs willing to put their hard-earned fortunes at risk to realize the dream of a multi-world civilization all of us have imagined for so many decades.

As with previous decades, we enter this one with the same mixture of hope and dread. We’ll have our times of difficulties and adjustments, but we also have one thing that previous times failed to produce: a real shot at the final frontier — not just for an elite few, but for the common man. Recent discoveries, unparalleled relationships forming between public and private sectors and a change of destinations would all seem to signal the next chapter in history. We’ve opened a new decade, plotted a new course, and the possibilities are infinite.

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A Space-Based Economic Stimulus

July 13, 2009 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Commercial Space Flight 

As we draw near to the time when the LCROSS spacecraft impacts the moon (see The Quest To Find Water On The Moon) it’s worth pausing for a moment to consider the implications of a discovery of water on the lunar surface. Scientists studying data recently obtained from the Japanese Kaguya (Selene) spacecraft discovered positive evidence of Uranium and several other elements never before detected. This discovery, in and of itself, is a cogent illustration that the moon harbors more natural resources than we’ve ever expected, resources that will be needed to support a base and eventually a settlement there. But if definitive evidence of lunar water is uncovered then the case for going back to the moon is made so strong that even the staunchest detractor will be struck mute. To say that the discovery would be monumental doesn’t begin to sum it up. In one fell swoop the biggest technical challenge in creating a large human presence on the moon will be solved.

It all comes down to economics.  Every pound of mass — consumables like food and water, machinery, construction materials, etc. — we launch into space costs money in fuel spent overcoming earths gravity; hence the less we’re forced to launch, the less we spend and the more economical the venture becomes. Many tons of water will be needed annually to support even a modest human presence in space. If that water is found on the moon, it changes everything. It means a lunar base has its own supply with the added bonus that where water is needed elsewhere in the solar system, it can be launched from the moon at a small fraction of the cost of launching it from the surface of the earth. The presence of water on the moon means the economics of building the first human outpost there becomes vastly simplified.

But there’s yet another benefit from such a discovery.  It would be a boon for commercial space flight, opening up vast new opportunities for the burgeoning industry at a time when it is seeking to expand into new markets.

In contrast to the lengthy, year-long trek required to reach Mars, the moon is a mere 3 days away; within the realm of expertise in commercial space flight. Indeed, commercially-available technology could be expanded to make the journey. And with a destination as close as the moon, rich in natural resources, new markets could spring up quite literally over night.

For example: hydrogen fuel cell automobiles. At the heart of the fuel cell is Platinum. The problem is that there’s not enough of it on earth to replace all the existing cars on the planet with a fuel cell, let alone accommodate for an increasing population. But hanging right above our heads is an abundant supply of it. The moon has many times the amount to be found here on earth. We simply need a cost-effective method of extracting it. Here again, we’re up against the economics of space flight, which would be facilitated by the discovery of water.

But the benefits don’t stop there. Water discovered on the moon equals a lunar base equals economic stimulus for commercial human space flight equals the emergence of a space-based economy with absolutely unlimited potential for jobs. Jobs!

And this brings me back to the original premise behind this blog: that our greatest hope for a large-scale, expansive human presence in space lies with the private sector.

Whether or not water is discovered on the moon, we will build a base there and eventually a settlement, but the presence of that precious substance would erase all doubt that the venture is feasible and open the flood gates of private investment.

And if all that were not enough, that economic stimulus would surely lead to advances in commercially-available technology that could shorten the timetable for the first flights to Mars.

So watch the count down to LCROSS impact with the moon, and cross your fingers on both hands, close your eyes and say a little prayer that we strike water.

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The Quest To Find Water On The Moon

On July 31, 1999 the NASA-built Lunar Prospector spacecraft crashed into a crater near the south pole of the moon.

Just over 7 years later on September 3, 2006 the European Space Agency’s SMART-1 crashed into Lacus Excellentiae (Latin for Lake of Excellence) in the moon’s southern region.

On November 14, 2008 an Indian-built spacecraft called Chandraayan 1 dropped a piece of itself, which impacted near Shackleton crater (named after Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton, noted Antarctic explorer of the early 20th century) at the lunar south pole.

This past June 10th, the Japanese Space Agency (JAXA) crashed its Selene spacecraft (nicknamed Kaguya) into the moon.

Are you beginning to detect a rather disturbing trend, here?

And last week, two more NASA probes, the Lunar Reconnaisance Orbiter (LRO) and the Lunar CRater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS), were dispatched to the moon, also to be crashed into it… intentionally!

Either the world’s space scientists have a really warped sense of humor, or there’s a sane, rational reason for all these perfectly good, multi-million-dollar space probes being slammed into the lunar surface. And as it turns out, there is a good reason after all.

President Bush united the country (arguably, setting the tone for the rest of the world) under a single, unified goal in space for the first time since the 1960′s: the Vision for Space Exploration. Under VSE we’ll first return to the moon then go on to Mars — with all due respect to some of my colleagues who would prefer it in the reverse order. Though I hold them in very high regard, even share their love of Mars and the idea of establishing a colony there, the moon is a far better choice at this point in time. Over and above the more publicized reasons for going back to the moon such as for natural resources and using it as a staging area for Mars flights, missions to our nearest neighbor in space will more readily and rapidly aid in establishing space commerce, which I deeply believe is the more exigent.

Our first colony on another world will be a feat of engineering and logistics, rivaling the great westward push through the US of the 1800′s, and not only for the courage that will be required of the people who make the journey but the extreme economic hurtles that must be made. In the old west, settlers took the tools they needed to work the land, a few livestock if they were fortunate and not much else. They lived off the land, bodies of water and the wildlife they discovered. Space settlers, on the other hand, must take everything, even the air they breathe, and the cost of transporting every extra pound of cargo adds up quickly in added fuel spent. For this reason, such a settlement must be self-sustaining to the greatest extent possible. But the moon is a harsh homestead, providing only for the more industrious individual. If we could find water there, we would in one fell swoop solve some of the more daunting problems of space habitation.

Not only does water provide for drinking, bathing, cooking and cleaning, but it is an ideal solvent, a catalyst for building materials like concrete, and when you apply to that good ole H2O the process of electrolysis, can be split into its basic components: hydrogen and — yes, you guessed it — oxygen for breathing.

And so it is that we’ve embarked on a quest to find water on the moon. But wait. What does that have to do with crashing spacecraft?

There are two choices available to us for finding that clear, and so far painfully elusive, substance. Either we send people en masse to hack away at the surface with an assortment of machines dedicated to the task or we try an intelligent and far more cost-effective approach. It turns out that when you slam an object into the moon at the kinds of speeds one must achieve for space flight, the resultant release of energy is quite impressive; more than enough to kick up a very sizable plume of material from the impact site. And if you have an instrument capable of detecting water (ice or vapor) in that plume… vuala! You have your detection method. In the past, instruments have been trained on such a plume from a distance, a method called remote sensing. But LCROSS launched last week will be employing another, ingenious technique. It’s called an in situ (Latin for “in the place”) measurement. Here’s how it will work.

Two spacecraft, a rocket called a Centaur and a “shepherding spacecraft”, fly connected to the moon. Actually, the LRO spacecraft is also connected, but it will not meet the same fate. The Centaur is aimed at the moon (and we’ll get to how we pick the impact site in a minute), guided by the shepherding spacecraft. Before impact, the two separate. The Centaur traveling at 5600 miles per hour reaches the impact site first, selected for this task because of its high mass, weighing in at approximately 34,000 pounds — heavier than a bus. On impact, it excavates material from the resulting 100-foot-diameter crater and ejects it 30 miles up! Meanwhile, the shepherd, descending along the same path, is flying through the plume, continuously taking measurements and sending them back to earth until its own demise. If there is any water in any form on that spot, it will be detected.

OK, so you have your method for detection. Though it’s true the moon is much smaller than the earth, it’s still a prodigious expanse and wilderness. How do you narrow your search area? One fact that helps with this task is that the moon has no atmosphere.

On earth, our atmosphere protects us from the sun’s immense heat. It acts as a filter, allowing no more energy to reach the service than we need. Were it not for this filter, the sun would boil off our oceans. Back on the moon, this is precisely what happens to any water ice exposed to the sun’s rays. With no atmosphere there to reduce solar radiation, the ice heats up and boils away into space.

Knowing this, you might be tempted to throw in the towel, thinking that the whole of the moon is exposed to the sun and therefore couldn’t possibly contain any water ice. Luckily, there are some regions that lie in permanent shadow. At no point throughout the lunar year does the sun penetrate. Where might these places be, you ask? Well, I imagine you’ve already gleaned part of the answer from the fact that all the probes mentioned at the top of this article were being crashed into the moon’s southern regions.

It is estimated that both the north and south polar regions contain craters that lie in permanent shadow, so it is there where we will target impacting missions. Finding water on the moon will be like discovering a lush oasis in the middle of the desert. That one resource could sustain a permanent lunar colony from which commerce could grow, bringing about a new and prosperous economy. A bit much to expect, you say? Perhaps, but I’ve a sneaking suspicion it may not take that long to find out.

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