Evidence of water on the moon opens new frontiers

James Marshall
October 28, 2020

The Moon's Clavius Crater, with an illustration depicting water trapped in its lunar soil. A team led by University of Colorado's Paul Hayne found that more than 15,400 square miles of lunar terrain are capable of trapping water in the form of ice, 20 percent more area than previously thought.

As for the shadowed areas believed to be brimming with frozen water near the moon's north and south poles, temperatures are so low that they could hold onto the water for millions or even billions of years. The latest discovery of water confirmed on the sunward-facing surface of the moon is significant because it runs contrary to scientists who thought water under direct sunlight would not stay.

Using this method the spacecraft detected, at wavelengths of three micrometers, the spectral signature of hydrogen and oxygen molecules. Another possibility is that solar wind delivers the hydrogen ions necessary to cause a chemical reaction with oxygen in the moon's soil to create hydroxyl.

Just to be clear - there is actual water on the Moon?

But thanks to the Boeing SOFIA, equipped with an infrared telescope, NASA scientists have spotted traces of water molecules on the surface, on the Clavius crater, present in the southern hemisphere and visible from Earth. Astronauts would follow in a series of missions meant to set up long-term bases.

The observatory in the 747 is created to fly high enough above the Earth that much of the water vapor doesn't mess with observations - that gives it a clear shot at scouring the lunar surface for signs of H2O.

The researchers are not sure the accessibility of the water, but this was the first time SOFIA was used in a study on the Moon.

Hayne said scientists will have a better idea of the source of the water "if we can get down on the surface and analyze samples of the ice".

"If we're right, water is going to be more accessible for drinking water, for rocket fuel, everything that NASA needs water for", Hayne said. Their flights found that each kilogram of lunar soil along two narrow swaths of the Moon's surface contains between 100 milligrams and 400 milligrams of water, or about one raindrop's worth, the team reports today in Nature Astronomy.

"This is not puddles of water but instead water molecules that are so spread apart that they do not form ice or liquid water", said Casey Honniball, the lead author of a study about the discovery.

PAUL HERTZ: So the first important thing is- is this water on the moon useful as a resource for future explorers?

However, if NASA scientists had read a bit more work from their Soviet colleagues, they might have realized that the Soviet Union's Luna 24 probe made this discovery in 1976.

Meanwhile, radiation from the bombardment of micrometeorites could be transforming that hydroxyl into water.

Jacob Bleacher, chief exploration scientist for NASA's Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, explained in the live discussion that water on the moon could mean missions to the moon wouldn't need to pack as much water for the journey, opening up weight and space for other payloads.

What's putting water on the Moon?

There are various spots on the moon that are called, "micro-cold traps". This discovery indicates that water may be distributed across the lunar surface and not limited to cold places. It may be possible to find ice cream in places that are much easier to get to, e.g.

With humanity set to return to the Moon in the next few years, these findings could be crucial to how we set up a permanent presence.

Other reports by Click Lancashire

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