“Witches’ Brew”

Paul Spudis discusses the recent LCROSS findings:

The LCROSS team’s published data from the mission reveals a cold witches’ brew deep inside Cabeus crater. The finding of significant lunar water has confirmed data from earlier missions, while the ejecta plume from the LCROSS impact reveals more modest amounts of a variety of other substances. The Near-IR spectrometers on the LCROSS shepherding satellite detected abundant water (H2O) but also hydrogen sulfide (H2S), ammonia (NH3), methanol (CH3OH), methane (CH4), ethylene (C2H4) and sulfur dioxide (SO2). The uv-vis spectrometer found carbon dioxide (CO2), sodium, silver, and cyanide (CN). Aboard the distant LRO spacecraft, the ultraviolet LAMP imager detected hydrogen (H2), nitrogen, carbon monoxide (CO), sodium, mercury, zinc, gold (!), and calcium. But water, present in quantities between 5 and 10 weight percent, is the most abundant volatile substance present.

One of the many travesties of Constellation is that, in attempting to redo Apollo, it ate up all the funding for serious preparatory exploration of the moon that would have provided a lot better guidance to requirements for human lunar activities. Compared to what we previously thought, the moon seems to be a veritable rain forest in terms of water quantities and densities, with other useful volatiles as well.

41 thoughts on ““Witches’ Brew””

  1. I was particularly interested by the detection of large amounts of molecular hydrogen in the cloud. I imagine the extremely cold ices can trap H2 molecules in clathrate-like structures.

    Hydrogen (and also ammonia and methanol; ammonia I know was detected) would make fine propellant for nuclear thermal rockets.

  2. The silver, gold, etc. are interesting. I wonder if comets are loaded with volatile organo-metallic compounds.

  3. I’ve got a stupid question. How did they control for the fact that they’re measuring the results of an impact by a spacecraft?

    It strikes me as analogous to trying to determine if there’s oxygen in the Martian atmosphere using Earth-based spectrographs. (Reference to a classic joke used by Hal Clement (Harry Stubbs) in a lecture at Chicon.)

  4. Glenn,

    I assume the scientists allowed for the vaporized elements of the spacecraft and corrected for it.

  5. I note that what David Criswell once called “the nitrogen problem” looks to have been solved by this finding. Air is 4/5 N2 and weighs more than people in most rooms (do the math), so transporting an adequate mass of nitrogen to the Moon looked like it would be a tremendous challenge to the establishment of any sizeable lunar habitat. Now it looks like we can get the nitrogen in the same place we get the water and the propellant (and for that matter the carbon for organics and structural materials). It’s good news all around.

  6. Jay,

    Yes, just add people, mix with a bit of technology and we have an entire world waiting for us just a short 3 day flight from Earth 🙂

  7. The complete lack of attention on lunar prospecting and exploration over last 30 years has been completely ridiculous. Three rovers on mars, fourth one on the way, and NO soft landing on the moon for more than 30 years ?

    Mars mafiaa is strong within this one ..

    I mean, Clementine hinted at hydrogen more than a decade ago and there are still no solid plans to get ground truth on the matter ?

  8. After these findings I think Mars can and should wait.
    We’ve got a whole world just next door.

    I just hope they did allow for the vaporised elements of the spacecraft. Maybe they did it right, after all they aren’t climate scientists.

  9. I think Mars can and should wait.

    There’s the evil of it. Of course it can wait. We could ignore it completely. Of course we should be doing research directly on the surface of the moon with both humans and robots asap. But should mars wait?

    The reasons for going to mars are not all the same as for going to the moon.

    There are also things we should do now that are independent of destination.

    We should go to mars now for two reasons: Because we can…

    1) Period.

    2) …always push it off so far in the future that it may never happen.

    Most important because mars forces a level of independence we will not have with the moon. This will lead to the fastest growth curve, IMHO.

    Divide the moon up into one sq. km. parcels and recognize title to anyone that maintains an inhabited facility on their parcel for a year and promise to do the same for mars and I’ll join the lunatics because ownership is the fastest way to develop anything.

    “Life, liberty and property”

  10. I think we should go to the Moon, Phobos, Deimos, and the asteroids. It makes sense to bootstrap an in space economy in these low gravity bodies. If we had a viable economy in the less deep gravity wells, we wouldn’t need to spend so much energy to move mass from Earth to space for a myriad of tasks. This would also enable the use of reusable vehicles even with current propulsion technology.

    This mission showed there is still plenty of room for further robotic exploration. Plus it was done on a comparatively shoestring budget.

    I agree that in order for the Moon to be properly developed, it must be possible to own parcels of land there. It is imperative that we colonize near space to ensure the future and prosperity of mankind.

  11. Thomas Matula,

    Since it’s obvious to me that they have to control for the spacecraft impactor in analyzing the debris, I also assume they thought of it.

    What I don’t know is *how* they account for it. For example, if they report seeing gold in the spectrum, when we know that there is a fair amount of gold in the electrical parts of the spacecraft, how do you determine if a given amplitude in the ‘gold region’ of the spectrum is fully accounted for by the spacecraft, or if part of it must be vaporized lunar material?

  12. Okay, lets put this into perspective once again.
    Our friendly space agency managed to line up fourth rover to Mars which is between 4-20 light minutes from earth. Searching for long dead bugs there is apparently important.
    Meanwhile we have got a world about 1.3 lightseconds away from us, and nobody has bothered to land there to figure out if the volatiles there can be extracted and used, which may potentially change the whole equation of future exploitation of space ?
    They have got their priorities straight, all right.

  13. The presence of the witches brew is not a surprise, since almost any volatile substance delivered to the surface of the moon (or created there, in the case of solar wind hydrogen forming water from metal oxides) will eventually get caught in the cold traps or removed via ionization and escape. There’s no other fate for them; every place BUT the cold traps gets hot enough during the day to liberate the volatiles from the surface, so the cold traps are “downhill” from everywhere on the moon.

  14. Two things to remember about colonizing the Moon:

    1) Going there now means that almost certainly it’ll be via the socialist model of NASA.
    2) We still don’t know if lunar gravity is sufficient to stop bone degradation.. if it turns out that the maximum safe stay on the Moon is 8 months (as most everyone agrees it is in zero-g) then self sufficiency is no longer that important – because you’re going to have to shuttle people backwards and forwards every 8 months anyway.

  15. @Trent,

    I’m not familiar with the clinical details of free-fall adaptation. Is this the kind of thing that’s a common trope in science fiction, where once you ‘adapt’ to low gravity, you’re perfectly healthy there but unable to return to ‘normal’ conditions, or is this something more severe, where you literally can’t survive long term, even if you remain on orbit (or on the moon) forever.

  16. >>1) Going there now means that almost certainly it’ll be via the socialist model of NASA.
    Does it now, really ? GLXP ? ILDD ? How socialist is either of those ?

  17. There’s no other fate for them

    Being ionized by sunlight and swept off into space by the solar wind.

  18. Glenn, astronauts on the ISS experience bone loss at an alarming rate. They literally piss out their bones at a rate of 1%/month on average.. some people are worse than others though, I believe the worst ever was a Skylab astronaut who lost ~1%/week. No-one knows exactly how long an astronaut can lose boneloss at that rate before they start suffering regular bone breaks.. but image someone with brittle bone disease (like Mr Glass in Unbreakable) floating around a space station and you get some idea.

    Speculation abounds in regards to how much gravity you actually need to maintain healthy bones. So far no experimentation has been done in reduced gravity environments.. that is, we have data points at 0g, 1g (and >1g) but nothing in-between.

    Sending someone to the Moon to live 20m under the regolith for 6 months would actually be good research and tell us something about the potential of (unmodified) humans in space.

  19. Trent, thanks.

    I broke a wrist recently and in the course of treatment the doctor recommended a drug plus calcium supplements to improve my bone density. I wonder if that would work to counterbalance the bone loss in weightlessness. Which raises the next question, of what would the long-term results of *that* be.

    I presume there’s been insufficient experience to tell if the loss ‘tapers off’ after a certain amount of time in zero gravity. And I take your point about the total lack of data for long-term exposure to more-than-zero but less-than-normal gravity.

  20. Glenn,

    Silver is not new on the Moon, they found it in Apollo samples. But the key is that the same mechanism that concentrates ice in the cold traps may also concentrate it. The Cold Traps may well be like ore bodies on Earth. A more detailed report is below.


    [[[Silver is not usually considered a volatile, but Robert Wegeng of the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Washington, who is not a member of the mission team, says it probably behaves like one in the vacuum and temperature conditions on the moon. Other useful metals, such as tellurium, indium, and selenium, may behave the same way, he says.]]]

    Unlike Mars, which is cursed with an atmosphere, the lack of one on the Moon may make mining even easier by putting all the good stuff in one place. 🙂

  21. What seems to be the most prudent thing now would be to land a rover on the moon, near the poles, and explore these potential resources. Something with MSL capabilities, although smaller if possible.

    The reason I say MSL-like, is that a rover would need a RTG to last through the two-weeks lunar nights + be able to descend into permanently shadowed craters/valleys.

  22. The reasons we have not colonized the moon are technological, economic and psychological. For large-scale settlement to occur, the requisite travel technology and necessary capital must be within reach of the average middle-class person. Additionally, the destination to be settled must be perceived as “better” than the potential settler’s current place of residence.

    Let’s look at the settlement of the American West c. 1843. The technology needed to emigrate along the Oregon Trail was an ox-drawn wagon, a gun, various hand tools (e.g. axes, saws), and household goods such as cooking implements. A Chicago or Studebaker wagon might cost a pioneer $120 brand new in 1843 dollars. Four oxen could be had for $150 or so. Add in the cost of a six-month supply of food for four (about $150) and another $100 for miscellaneous supplies and the grand total cost for the journey West was roughly $520 dollars in 1843 money. Figuring a ratio of 30:1 between dollars then and dollars now, the total capital outlay for an Oregon Trail settler was $15,600 — a lot of money for a farmer, shopkeeper, or blacksmith, but an amount that could be obtained by selling off farmland or other assets.

    And at the end of the trail lay the Oregon Territory, a lush and fertile land of running rivers and thick timer for building. A settler could obtain up to 640 acres of this prime land more or less for free upon arrival. Add to this an extant network of in situ amenities and other support (trading posts, towns, Army posts, etc.) and the prospects for the average settler’s success were favorable.

    The potential moon settler has none of the resources of the Oregon Trail pioneer. No affordable way of getting to the moon exists; pricey government vehicles crewed by handpicked crews of elite specialists are the only means of lunar travel. Private spacecraft are coming on line, but so long as rocket power is used to propel spacecraft, the cost of getting out of Earth atmosphere and going anywhere in a reasonable amount of time will be too high for anyone except the super-rich, the megacorporations, and governments. The equipment needed to survive on the moon is mostly hand-made, available only to government eployees, and is fantastically expensive. And at journey’s end lies a desolate world of rock and radiation, utterly incapable of supporting life in any form.

    (This, I think, is the greatest obstacle to lunar colonization: who the hell would want to live the rest of their life there? The deadly environment and high cost of getting there mean that any lunar colony is going to be owned by a government and./or giant corporate conglomerate. No one is going to risk a fortune and their neck in order to spend their remaining years in a glorified, military-staffed mobile home a quarter million miles away from green grass and birdsong.)

    If the moon were covered with clouds, continents and oceans, our ancestors would have moved mountains in order to be the first to reach it and colonize it. As it is, the moon is useless to potential settlers. When the moon is terraformed to Earth standards, and when getting there costs the equivalent of $15K, you’ll see a lunar land rush that will make the Oregon Trail pale in comparison. Until then — barring the discovery of a twin of Earth orbiting some other star, and a wormhole or some other means besides rockets of traveling to it — space settlement is just not going to happen.

  23. The human body is highly adaptive and energy conserving. If you do not use your muscles, they shrink to conserve energy. If you use your muscles, they grow to enable more working proficiency. If you eat a lot, the stomach grows in size, if you eat little, the stomach shrinks.

    I have little reason to consider this is not the case with bone structure. From my POV our body is simply devoting less energy to bone growth because strong bones are simply not being required. The answer is to either have at least partial gravity in the habitats to sustain the bones, or to let evolution take its course accepting that these people may never be able to leave zero-G again.

  24. @B Lewis:
    I think it is too early to tell. But if it comes to the point where the initial costs of Moon exploration are too high for individuals, the state can grant a time limited monopoly on lunar trade and exploration (say for 10 years) to a corporation on the condition that the company develops a certain amount of oxygen production, or fuel production, or water, or explores a given area of the Moon, etc. This was more or less the model followed by the East India companies in the early stages of the Age of Exploration.

  25. Godzilla, would you care to pay attention please? There’s no indication, at all, that bone loss will stop in zero-g (or reduced gravity environments of any sort). So it’s not a question of “never being able to leave zero-g”, it’s a question of “having any bones left at all”.

  26. Trent, based on the information you’ve quoted so far, it’s not unreasonable to suppose there is a limit to bone erosion in microgravity that comes before the complete dissolution of the skeleton.

    Really, the only way to find out is to put some suitable mammal on orbit and leave it there until its rib cage collapses, or until some type of steady-state condition is achieved.

    I don’t expect to see the experiment done any time soon, though.

  27. The potential moon settler has none of the resources of the Oregon Trail pioneer … at journey’s end lies a desolate world of rock and radiation, utterly incapable of supporting life in any form.

    The early Oregon trail pioneers didn’t have all the resources of those that came later either. Most of the surface of the earth (I’m not even including oceans) is not habitable. We think of terraforming as an all or nothing deal, but the truth is, we do it every time we build a structure or wear appropriate clothes (exposure kills. It’s so easy to disregard the obvious.)

    When you put a permanent habitat on the moon, you’ve just terraformed that piece of it. Once thousands of people are there, terraforming more of it becomes a standard operation.

    the destination to be settled must be perceived as “better”

    Absolutely right, but ‘better’ can include a lot of attributes, different for each person. Suppose you are a family living on the moon and own a lunar lander/exploration vehicle so you can take a sunday drive to a NEO if you like. You’ve got abundant free energy and free fuel if your property includes it. Depending on the political situation, they might consider this better. Many people could afford this at current presumed costs which will come down.

  28. @Trent Waddington Says:
    ” We still don’t know if lunar gravity is sufficient to stop bone degradation.. if it turns out that the maximum safe stay on the Moon is 8 months (as most everyone agrees it is in zero-g) then self sufficiency is no longer that important – because you’re going to have to shuttle people backwards and forwards every 8 months anyway.”

    A possible solution would be to provide astronauts on the Moon with a portable centrifuge. Test on Earth show that a couple of hours a day under high levels of artificial gravity are enough to mitigate the deleterious effects of a microgravity environment.

  29. @ken anthony: I respect your argument and point of view, but I disagree. Lunar Rover or no, I don’t think the average person would perceive the “magnificent desolation” of the Moon as a better place to live than the green, growing Earth. Yes, the view from the north rim of Tycho is lovely, but is that view preferable to he prospect of a life lived in some sort of air-filled cylinder or tunnel, a life without without cherry blossoms, mockingbirds, the smell of the sea, or horses running on bluegrass? Maybe for some, but for most?

    And let’s not fool ourselves: there will be no lunar homesteading. The nations of the world (and Uncle Sam) will never permit any part of the moon to be owned in fee simple by a private individual. Sure, in time there will probably be some sort of private consortium on the moon engaged in the mining of He3 or oxygen or something, but you’d better believe that it will be doing so as a concessionaire of the United Nations Lunar Authority or the Federal Lunar Program Office or some such, not as an owner. The Powers That Be are no more going to allow the moon to be divided up into parcels for sale that they are going to open Antarctica for development.(It would be much easier to homestead Antarctica than it would be to homestead the moon.)

    No, barring full, Earthlike terraforming (or the aforementioned wormhole to Earth II), there will be no “Oregon Trail to the Stars”.

  30. …prospect of a life lived in some sort of air-filled cylinder or tunnel, a life without cherry blossoms, mockingbirds, the smell of the sea, or horses running on bluegrass?

    Have you ever been to a mall? Some of them are quite impressive. I had a buddy I worked with that almost lived in one with his wife. He was there just about any time it was open and they were not both working. There is no reason life on the moon couldn’t include vaulted ceilings, birds and cherry blossoms. You could easily have bluegrass, though I expect horses would take a while before you had enough pasture to support them but perhap not, and you still get that amazing outside view as well. These settlements could easily have more to do and places to go than most small towns in the midwest. Skyscrapers on earth are often homes, some also being the business address of the people that live there. They never have to leave the building. Who knows how many people currently live like that. My grandmother spent decades looking out her kitchen window in Brooklyn. Everybody in the neighborhood knew her. Oh, and don’t forget the low gravity sports arena. I expect every settlement will have their own teams.

    And let’s not fool ourselves: there will be no lunar homesteading.

    I strongly suspect you are right. This is actually a major reason I think mars is a better choice for settlement. The lag due to the speed of light works in it’s favor regarding independence and it would be a lot more difficult for those on earth to say the settlers couldn’t own their own property. The settlers might even be able to ignore any other suggestion coming from earth. They could set up their own local title office and just agree that’s the way it is.

  31. Trent,

    That is why I think Asimov Habitats are the way to go. The provide engineering solutions to the two key issues of the impact of microgravity and radiation on humans.

    Its also like planetary real property rights are a moot issue. Planetary bodies are not on the critical path of human settlement of space, other then as a resource base for building Asimov Habitats.

  32. Have you ever been to a mall? Some of them are quite impressive. I had a buddy I worked with that almost lived in one with his wife. He was there just about any time it was open and they were not both working.

    I know of little old lady who lives on cruise ships. Nice way to spend your golden years.

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