NASA NEWS Release: H98-38 (March 5, 1998)

Lunar Prospector Finds Evidence of Ice at Moon's Poles

There is a high probability that water ice exists at both the north and south poles of the Moon, according to initial scientific data returned by NASA's Lunar Prospector.

The Discovery Program mission also has produced the first operational gravity map of the entire lunar surface, which should serve as a fundamental reference for all future lunar exploration missions, project scientists announced today at NASA's Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, CA.

Just two months after the launch of the cylindrical spacecraft, mission scientists have solid evidence of the existence of lunar water ice, including estimates of its volume, location and distribution. "We are elated at the performance of the spacecraft and its scientific payload, as well as the resulting quality and magnitude of information about the Moon that we already have been able to extract," said Dr. Alan Binder, Lunar Prospector Principal Investigator from the Lunar Research Institute, Gilroy, CA.

The presence of water ice at both lunar poles is strongly indicated by data from the spacecraft's neutron spectrometer instrument, according to mission scientists. Graphs of data ratios from the neutron spectrometer "reveal distinctive 3.4 percent and 2.2 percent dips in the relevant curves over the northern and southern polar regions, respectively," Binder said. "This is the kind of data 'signature' one would expect to find if water ice is present."

However, the Moon's water ice is not concentrated in polar ice sheets, mission scientists cautioned. "While the evidence of water ice is quite strong, the water 'signal' itself is relatively weak," said Dr. William Feldman, co-investigator and spectrometer specialist at the Department of Energy's Los Alamos National Laboratory, NM. "Our data are consistent with the presence of water ice in very low concentrations across a significant number of craters." Using models based on other Lunar Prospector data, Binder and Feldman predict that water ice is confined to the polar regions and exists at only a 0.3 percent to 1 percent mixing ratio in combination with the Moon's rocky soil, or regolith.

How much lunar water ice has been detected? Assuming a water ice depth of about a foot and a half (.5 meters) -- the depth to which the neutron spectrometer's signal can penetrate -- Binder and Feldman estimate that the data are equivalent to an overall range of 11 million to 330 million tons (10-300 million metric tons) of lunar water ice, depending upon the assumptions of the model used. This quantity is dispersed over 3,600 to 18,000 square miles (10,000-50,000 square kilometers) of water ice-bearing deposits across the northern pole, and an additional 1,800 to 7,200 square miles (5,000-20,000 square kilometers) across the southern polar region. Furthermore, twice as much of the water ice mixture was detected by Lunar Prospector at the Moon's north pole as at the south.

Dr. Jim Arnold of the University of California at San Diego previously has estimated that the most water ice that could conceivably be present on the Moon as a result of meteoritic and cometary impacts and other processes is 11 billion to 110 billion tons. The amount of lunar regolith that could have been "gardened" by all impacts in the past 2 billion years extends to a depth of about 6.5 feet (2 meters), he found. On that basis, Lunar Prospector's estimate of water ice would have to be increased by a factor of up to four, to the range of 44 million to 1.3 billion tons (40 million to 1.2 billion metric tons). In actuality, Binder and Feldman caution that, due to the inadequacy of existing lunar models, their current estimates "could be off by a factor of ten in either direction."

The earlier joint Defense Department-NASA Clementine mission to the Moon used a radar-based technique that detected ice deposits in permanently shadowed regions of the lunar south pole. It is not possible to directly compare the results from Lunar Prospector to Clementine because of their fundamentally different sensors, measurement "footprints," and analysis techniques. However, members of the Clementine science team concluded that its radar signal detected from 110 million to 1.1 billion tons (100 million to 1 billion metric tons) of water ice, over an upper area limit of 5,500 square miles (15,500 square kilometers) of south pole terrain.

There are various ways to estimate the economic potential of the detected lunar water ice as a supporting resource for future human exploration of the Moon. One way is to estimate the cost of transporting that same volume of water ice from Earth to orbit. Currently, it costs about $10,000 to put one pound of material into orbit. NASA is conducting technology research with the goal of reducing that figure by a factor of 10, to only $1,000 per pound. Using an estimate of 33 million tons from the lower range detected by Lunar Prospector, it would cost $60 trillion to transport this volume of water to space at that rate, with unknown additional cost of transport to the Moon's surface. From another perspective, a typical person consumes an estimated 100 gallons of water per day for drinking, food preparation, bathing and washing. At that rate, the same estimate of 33 million tons of water (7.2 billion gallons) could support a community of 1,000 two-person households for well over a century on the lunar surface, without recycling. "This finding by Lunar Prospector is primarily of scientific interest at this time, with implications for the rate and importance of cometary impacts in the history and evolution of the Solar System," said Dr. Wesley Huntress, NASA Associate Administrator for Space Science. "A cost-effective method to mine the water crystals from within this large volume of soil would have to be developed if it were to become a real resource for drinking water or as the basic components of rocket fuel to support any future human explorers." Before the Lunar Prospector mission, historical tracking data from various NASA Lunar Orbiter and Apollo missions had provided evidence that the lunar gravity field is not uniform. Mass concentrations caused by lava which filled the Moon's huge craters are known to be the cause of the anomalies. However, precise maps of lunar mass concentrations covering the moon's equatorial near-side region were the only ones available.

Lunar Prospector has dramatically improved this situation, according to co-investigator Dr. Alex Konopliv of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, CA. Telemetry data from Lunar Prospector has been analyzed to produce a full gravity map of both the near and far side of the moon. Konopliv also has identified two new mass concentrations on the Moon's near-side that will be used to enhance geophysical modeling of the lunar interior. This work has produced the first-ever complete engineering-quality gravity map of the moon, a key to the operational safety and fuel-efficiency of future lunar missions.

"This spacecraft has performed beyond all reasonable expectations," said NASA's Lunar Prospector mission manager Scott Hubbard of Ames. "The findings announced today are just the tip of the iceberg compared to the wealth of information forthcoming in the months and years ahead."

Lunar Prospector is scheduled to continue its current primary data gathering mission at an altitude of 62 miles (100 kilometers) for a period of ten more months. At that time, the spacecraft will be put into an orbit as low as six miles (10 kilometers) so that its suite of science instruments can collect data at much finer resolution in support of more detailed scientific studies.

In addition, surface composition and structure information developed from data returned by the spacecraft's Gamma Ray Spectrometer instrument will be a crucial aspect of additional analysis of the polar water ice finding over the coming months.

The third launch in NASA's Discovery Program of lower cost, highly focused planetary science missions, Lunar Prospector is being implemented for NASA by Lockheed Martin, Sunnyvale, CA, with mission management by NASA Ames. The total cost to NASA of the mission is $63 million.



Rediscovering the Moon

From Galileo's initial glimpses through a telescope to Neil Armstrong's historic first steps on its surface, the Moon has always held a particular fascination for humankind. However, despite a high level of scientific and public interest, surprisingly little is known about Earth's nearest planetary neighbor. Over 75% of the lunar surface is not mapped in detail, and some of the most important questions about the history of the Moon, its composition and internal processes remain unanswered.

To address this important area and to prepare for subsequent solar system exploration, a NASA Discovery class mission named Lunar Prospector was launched in January 1998. Prospector is a free-flier that will not land on the lunar surface. It will be placed in a polar orbit and will conduct studies of the Moon for a period of one year. Prospector will use remote sensing to gather information of interest from an altitude of just over 60 miles above the lunar surface. It will use its complement of five science instruments to map the elemental composition, the gravity and magnetic fields, and the resources of the Moon. It will provide insights into lunar origin and evolution. Finally, it will yield direct measurements on the existence or absence of water ice in the Moon's polar regions.

While the Apollo missions focused on the goal of placing humans on the lunar surface, Lunar Prospector will have a decidedly more scientific orientation. The vast majority of data collected during the Apollo era is restricted to narrow regions around the equator of the Moon. Lunar Prospector will map the entire lunar surface. In addition, since the days of Apollo, only a handful of spacecraft have passed by the Moon in a data collection mode while on their way to other planetary destinations. For these missions, the gathering of data about the Moon was not the primary goal, so the lunar data collection efforts were of short duration and conducted from much higher transit altitudes. Lunar Prospector, conversely, will operate for a minimum of one year in a low lunar orbit.

Mission Objectives

During the joint Department of Defense/NASA Clementine mission conducted in 1994, imagery and measurements of areas of the lunar surface were made from an altitude of 250 miles. Recently published bistatic radar data from that mission provide suggestive, but indirect, evidence of the possible existence of water ice in the Moon's polar regions. While any water that may have existed at one time on the Moon at low latitudes has long since evaporated due to high daytime temperatures, some theories and the Clementine data suggest that water may be tucked away in the cold, shaded regions of the lunar poles. Prospector's neutron spectrometer will make direct measurements that will definitively confirm this presence or absence of water ice.

In other scientific investigations, a gamma ray spectrometer will remotely measure the composition of the lunar surface, looking for uranium, iron, titanium and numerous other chemical elements and minerals of value and interest. An alpha particle spectrometer will seek evidence of outgassing events that might indicate the level of tectonic and volcanic activity on the Moon, Finally, a combination of a magnetometer/electron reflectometer and the spacecraft's own radio will probe the characteristics of the Moon's gravity and magnetic fields to improve understanding of the internal lunar structure, including the core.

Beyond its first year of operation at an altitude of over 60 miles, the option exists to command Lunar Prospector into an orbit that will approach within 6.2 miles of the lunar surface. This will enable Lunar Prospector to obtain data of much higher resolution than achieved previously. At this altitude, Lunar Prospector will observe the surface of the Moon at approximately the same cruising height as that at which a commercial jet operates during routine flights above the surface of the Earth.

The Discovery Program

The NASA Discovery program was created in 1992 to implement the Agency's concept of 'faster, cheaper, better.' The idea behind the approach is to incorporate state-of-the-art technologies into smaller projects with faster turnaround so as to foster the continuing conduct of outstanding science at an order-of-magnitude lower cost. To this end, NASA does not specify development details of Discovery missions. Each science team is given the maximum flexibility to pursue innovative and cost-effective approaches to meeting mission goals.

Emphasis on Science

A cornerstone of the Discovery program is the concept of "buying a mission from the Principal Investigator." This revolutionary management approach ensures missions that are performance based with an emphasis on delivery of scientific data. Responsibility for implementing this style of government management lies with the NASA mission manager. Technical insight is balanced against program oversight to ensure flexibility, innovation and maximum return on investment.

Accountability for the scientific success of Discovery missions resides with the Principal Investigator (PI). For Lunar Prospector, the first of the competitively selected missions to be funded under the Discovery program, Alan Binder of Lockheed Martin serves as the PI. Binder was Principal Investigator for the Viking Lander mission to Mars, 1968-77, and has over 30 years experience in lunar and planetary science. He leads a team of co-investigators from several universities and NASA centers. Lockheed Martin in Sunnyvale, CA, is the prime industry partner; Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, CA, is providing NASA oversight and technical support.

Science Instruments

Neutron Spectrometer - Detects hydrogen and will determine if water ice deposits exist in the polar regions of the moon.
Gamma Ray Spectrometer - Maps elemental composition of the lunar surface, providing information on the composition of the surface layer and shedding light on the Moon's origin and evolution.
Alpha Particle Spectrometer - Detects outgassing events to determine their frequency and location. Outgassing is suggestive of volcanic and tectonic events that indicate the activity level of the Moon. Earlier missions showed some activity, although very much less than on Earth or Mars.
Magnetometer and Electron Reflectometer - Maps lunar magnetic fields and will provide information on the size and characteristics of the Moon's inner core.
Doppler Gravity Experiment - Maps global lunar gravity field and will provide an enhanced model of the moon's gravity which is known to be non-uniform as a result of mass concentrations distributed below the surface of the Moon.

Key Spacecraft Facts
Mass: 660lb
Height: 4.5ft
Diameter: 4 ft
Length of masts: 8 ft
Power: solar cells
Propulsion: 302 lb hydrazine
Attitude Control: spin-stabilized
Data Rate: 3600 bps

Mission Facts
Launch 1/6/98
Flight 105 hours
Arrival 1/11/98
Launch Vehicle Athena II
Lunar Orbit Insertion 1/11/98
Lunar Orbit circular/polar
Orbit Altitude 62.5 miles