Knowledge: What do we know about lunar polar volatiles?
The possibility of significant amounts of frozen water existing on the floors of shadowed craters near the Moon’s poles was first suggested by Watson et al. (1961) and Arnold (1979). The idea that water and other volatiles could exist in the lunar polar regions was based on a truly unique characteristic of the Moon, which is the very tiny angle between its equator and the orbital plane of the Earth-Moon system as it revolves around the Sun. Remarkably, the lunar obliquity is only 1.5º, which means that (1) sunlight always strikes the poles from a very low elevation above the horizon; (2) hills and craters produce persistent, and even permanent shadowed regions; and (3) mountaintops may be bathed in persistent, quasi-permanent sunlight. It is thus hypothesized that the polar shadowed regions can serve as “cold traps” for volatiles that migrate along the Moon’s surface.
However, human and robotic lunar exploration in the 1960s and 1970s focused on equatorial and mid-latitude regions, and evidence available from missions of that era contributed to an initial impression that the moon is “bone dry”. For example, examination of the Apollo rock samples returned to Earth revealed none of the water-bearing primary minerals that are common in Earth rocks. As a result, the potential for the Moon to host significant amounts of water or other volatiles was under-appreciated until a string of missions starting in the 1990s began to collect important new data from lunar orbit. While the evidence for lunar volatiles is continuing to accumulate, their form, abundance, and distribution is not well known.
LEAG Lunar Volatiles Study (Dec 2014)
NASA commissioned the Lunar Exploration Analysis Group (LEAG) to identify needed measurements and polar regions of interest for a landed mission. Report here.
European Response to LEAG study (Sep 2015)
ESA’s Topical Team on Exploitation of Local Planetary Materials prepared a response to the LEAG lunar volatiles study. The response includes a main report and an appendix (Regions of Interest).
Knowledge Gaps: In the case of lunar polar volatiles, achieving this requires that a number of Strategic Knowledge Gaps (SKGs) be addressed. These knowledge gaps relate to the volatiles themselves and the lunar environment and its effects on surface operations more generally. The central lunar polar volatiles SKG is as follows:
-–Determine the composition, quantity, distribution, and form of water and other volatiles associated with lunar cold traps.
Capabilities: What technical capabilities are needed to prospect for lunar polar volatiles, and to acquire, process, and utilize them as a resource?
Capability Gaps: TBD.