Moon musings: No green cheese, but maybe ice cream

By Bob McDonald, host of the CBC science radio program Quirks & Quarks

An Indian spacecraft has confirmed that there is a substantial amount of water ice on the Moon. Scientists have suspected water would be hidden within the soil at the bottom of craters near the poles that never see the sun. Now their dream has come true, but who will claim the ice?

In the lunar Polar Regions, the sun always remains low on the horizon, so it never makes it above the rims of a number of deep bowl-shaped craters. These permanently dark crater floors are extremely cold; in fact, one of them was recently recorded as the coldest place in our solar system at –240FC. That’s colder than the surface of Pluto.

The ice is valuable for three reasons: scientifically, some of it could be very old, deposited there by comets that hit the moon in the early days of the solar system, so it would be an important historical record of both the Moon and comets.

Second, the ice could be turned into drinking water, the most valuable commodity for people living there.

And finally, it can be broken down into its components, hydrogen and oxygen. That’s rocket fuel.

On the Moon, water is worth its weight in gold, literally. The cost of bringing anything to the Moon from Earth, whether it’s water, rocket fuel or a brick, is at least $50,000 per kilogram. So finding a source of water on the Moon means people can live off the land, rather than depend on supplies from home.

But here’s an interesting thought. That ice is the first resource on the Moon that has a clear and immediate value. That means there will be a race to get to it and claim it. But getting to it is not an easy task. Because of the orbital mechanics of the Earth and Moon, it takes more energy to get to the poles. That’s why all the Apollo moon landings were along the equator. So someone is going to have to make the extra effort to get south, then work in extremely difficult conditions of cold and dark. That will push the value of the ice even higher.

Will ice on the Moon become the equivalent of oil on Earth?

According to the International Moon Treaty, no one owns the moon. It’s something like Antarctica, where you can set up a base and own that, but the territory is international.

That’s fine as long as the Moon is a barren rock - but as soon as valuable resources are involved, watch what happens.

The scientists will probably say, “Don’t disturb that ancient ice, we need to study it.” Although next month, the Americans are going to blow some of that ice up, as the LCROSS mission slams into one of those craters to send a plume of material skywards, so a second probe can fly through it to get samples. Then that second probe slams in as well, making a second plume, so telescopes on Earth can watch. So much for not disturbing the pristine ice.

Extracting the ice for water will probably be done by the private sector. Moon bottling companies will set up factories, high up on the rims of the polar craters, where, ironically, the sun always shines, so they can use solar energy to heat up the lunar soil and get the water out. You think bottled water is expensive now, imagine the coin you’d have to put into a vending machine on the Moon.

Energy companies will be competing for the same resource to make rocket fuel, setting up a debate about the best use of the ice …food or fuel? Where have we heard that before?

Finally, the amount of ice on the Moon is limited so the supply will eventually dwindle, escalating prices and possibly setting up conflicts over control of a resource that everyone needs. Sound familiar?

When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin made the first landing on the Moon 40 years ago, they unveiled a plaque that still stands on a leg of their lunar module. It reads, “We came in peace for all mankind.” I wonder if we will be able to maintain that philosophy when the Moon changes from an object of scientific curiosity to another world waiting to be plundered.