Why there’s a rush to explore the Moon’s enigmatic South Pole

Temperatures in PSRs might drop below -200C (-390F), making them prime locations to look for ice. A Nasa rover set to head to the Moon’s South Pole in late 2024, called Viper, will drive into some of these PSRs, switching on headlights to shed light – literally – on their secrets. The mission should tell us if there are “blocky chunks of ice” or “little crystals mixed into a sandy mix,” says Dan Andrews at Nasa’s Ames Research Center, Viper’s project manager.

Viper might not be the first mission to enter a PSR, however. A preceding mission called the Micro-Nova hopper, from the US firm Intuitive Machines, may be sent to the Moon earlier in 2024. While it lacks the instrumentation of Viper, such as a drill to dig into the surface, it will use its thrusters to “jump” into a PSR at the Moon’s South Pole, giving us our first ever glimpse inside.

These are not the only missions targeting the Moon’s South Pole though. A follow-up Indian mission in partnership with Japan, Chandrayaan-4, will also head here, while China has signaled its intent to land in this region and Russia has another planned South Pole mission.

Water ice is driving that interest. If it does exist in abundance and is accessible, it could be a valuable resource both for human settlements on the Moon and exploration farther into the solar system. If the ice can be stripped from the lunar soil it could be split into hydrogen and oxygen, a key component of rocket fuel or a potential source of drinking water and oxygen for human settlements.

“The simplest way to mine it is to dig up the icy soil and put it in some kind of oven to sublimate the ice,” says Kevin Cannon, an assistant professor in geology at the Colorado School of Mines in the US. “We could put enough propellant into a depot for a rocket to refuel and reach the outer solar system many times over. There’s also access to spots that are illuminated for up to 90% of the year, which gives good solar power for processing the soil into oxygen and metals like aluminium.”

These dreams of deep space travel and living on the moon are closer than one might think. In 2025 Nasa plans to land humans on the surface of the Moon on a SpaceX lander for the first time in half a century as part of its Artemis III mission. They will land at a currently unselected site at the South Pole and directly prospect for ice for the first time.

“The main objectives for that mission are learning how to land and operate in the polar regions,” says Jacob Bleacher, Nasa’s chief exploration scientist. Depending on the nature of ice discovered by previous missions like Viper at the South Pole, the astronauts will likely carry tools to collect some and return it to Earth. Future Artemis missions may then look to utilise this more keenly as a resource. “It is an iterative set of steps,” says Bleacher.

The prospect of other potentially useable minerals and metals on the Moon’s surface could also be mined and used by astronauts to construct the infrastructure they will need to survive there.

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NASA Extracts Oxygen From Simulated Moon Dust

“This is a big step for developing the architecture to build sustainable human bases on other planets.”Oxygen SquadResearchers at NASA’s Johnson Space Center have successfully extracted oxygen from simulated lunar soil.

According to the agency, it’s the first time such an extraction was completed inside a vacuum environment like the actual Moon.

It’s an exciting proof of concept scientifically, but also economically. Why? Because it could potentially provide future astronauts with the capability to harvest in-situ resources once they land on the Moon and turn them into breathable oxygen — and even rocket fuel for the way home.

Dirty ThermalIn a test, the team recreated conditions similar to those found on the Moon inside a 15-foot chamber called the Dirty Thermal Vacuum Chamber.

By heating a simulated soil sample using a high-powered laser inside a carbothermal reactor, the team successfully extracted oxygen from the soil.

Similar carbothermal reduction reactions have already been used for decades to produce solar panels and steel, NASA notes.

“This technology has the potential to produce several times its own weight in oxygen per year on the lunar surface, which will enable a sustained human presence and lunar economy,” said Aaron Paz, a NASA senior engineer and Carbothermal Reduction Demonstration (CaRD) project manager at the Johnson Space Center, in a statement.

Moon UnitThe scientists say they’ve developed a fully functional prototype that’s ready to be put to the ultimate test in space.

“Our team proved the CaRD reactor would survive the lunar surface and successfully extract oxygen,” said Anastasia Ford, a NASA engineer and CaRD test director. “This is a big step for developing the architecture to build sustainable human bases on other planets.”

But it won’t be easy. Once on the Moon, the reactor will have to be able to maintain high levels of pressure while also allowing lunar soil to get in and out of the reaction zone.

Getting heavy equipment to the Moon is also a significant challenge. At the earliest, the agency is hoping to land astronauts on the surface of the Moon during the upcoming Artemis 3 mission before the end of the decade.

More on oxygen extraction: Scientists Use Actual Lunar Soil Sample to Create Rocket Fuel

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