As space agencies prepare to launch missions to Mars and beyond, the moon’s south pole has become a destination of intense interest. That’s because this permanently shadowed region could contain a valuable resource that would help astronauts survive and explore the planet: water.
During the Apollo program, NASA astronauts traveled to the moon’s poles and found evidence of water. They couldn’t use it, though, because the lunar surface is so dusty that it can’t hold onto water molecules. Scientists believe the moon may have pockets of water ice in its craters. This frozen material is essential because it might contain a record of past lunar volcanoes and the materials that comets and asteroids delivered to Earth, which could provide clues about the origin of our oceans.
Frozen water is also helpful because it can be broken down into hydrogen and oxygen to make fuel and breathable air for human outposts in space. It’s a key component for lunar mining, which could help reduce the cost of trips to Mars and other distant destinations. It’s also a critical part of a lunar colony because it can be used to help excellent equipment.
That’s why many nations and private companies are racing to map the locations of the moon’s ice deposits and other resources. Indias Chandrayaan-3 spacecraft is preparing for a landing near the moon’s south pole, and other nations such as China and Russia are conducting their missions to explore this mysterious region.
The south pole is particularly intriguing because it might offer protection from the solar wind and micrometeoroids that can erode or disintegrate other parts of the moon, which are more exposed to the sun and its harsh radiation. It’s also a place where a lander might find more accessible water deposits, which would be easier to mine.
Despite its challenges, the south pole is one of the most promising places for future space exploration. But the research needed to unlock the secrets of the moon’s polar regions will be challenging and expensive. It’s a big reason why NASA’s plan to return astronauts to the moon by 2024 has struggled to win political support.
This image from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera shows a view of the moon’s south pole and surrounding areas. Permanently shaded regions (PSRs) are outlined in red.
NASA plans to eventually establish a lunar base called the Moon Village, which it hopes will serve as a stepping stone to building a permanent space station that would serve as a launching pad for journeys to Mars and other places in our solar system. The European Space Agency has a loose vision for a moon village too, and companies like Blue Origin also have designs on the moon. The US government is pushing for guidelines called the Artemis Accords that would allow it to claim the first rights to lunar resources. The Accords are meant to establish a clear legal framework for commercial operations on the moon, but there is no guarantee that other countries and private companies will sign on.