When NASA's heavy lift Space Launch System lifts off on its maiden flight in 2018 it will carry an uncrewed version of the Orion spacecraft for a trip around the moon. The SLS will also take 13 shoebox sized CubeSats that will perform various scientific missions, around the moon, to asteroids, and other destinations in deep space. One of the CubeSats is a project being built by students at Arizona State University and is called the Lunar Polar Hydrogen Mapper or LunarH-Map for short.

LunarH-Map is going to use sensors to detect the flow of neutrons dislodged from the moon’s surface by cosmic rays. The neutrons would indicate what sort of materials are present at a particular part of the moon. Hydrogen, for example, would be indicative of water, a material of vast importance for the future of space exploration.

Scientists have known that water ice exists in cold traps at the bottom of craters at the north and south poles of the moon where sunlight doesn’t penetrate.

The water has been deposited over billions of years by comet and asteroid impacts. Previous space probes from the Clementine in the 1990s to the current Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter have discovered indications of the water ice. LunarH-Map will attempt to develop a map of where the water is located.

Lunar water ice is important for the future of space exploration for two reasons.

First, the water could supply a future lunar settlement, sustaining its inhabitants and eliminating the need to ship the stuff from Earth.

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Second, the water can be refined into its two elements, hydrogen, and oxygen. In turn, these elements could be used as rocket fuel. Spacecraft headed for deep space destinations such as Mars or to an asteroid could top off their tanks at a lunar refueling station, eliminating the need to carry all the fuel they require for the interplanetary voyage. The lunar rocket fuel would also help to sustain the lunar settlement, allowing spacecraft to refuel before returning to Earth.

Currently, because of President Obama’s directive, America has no plans to return astronauts to the moon. However, a number of other countries, including the European Union, Russia, and China do have lunar ambitions. A number of studies, including one at MIT, suggests that a lunar refueling station would make NASA’s Journey to Mars program simpler and cheaper. Many expect that the next president will refocus America’s exploration efforts back to the moon upon assuming office,

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