Moon water a boon for plans of a lunar colony

Ruben Hill
October 28, 2020

The water signature was detected on the moon's illuminated surface, where the molecule would be exposed to UV radiation and where temperatures fluctuate dramatically between dawn, noon and dusk.

NASA's Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) made the discovery while flying 45,000 feet above the Earth in a modified Boeing 747SP jetliner.

Meanwhile, another team of scientists has calculated that cold traps - shadows that are cold enough to freeze water for billions of years - are much more abundant than we previously thought.

"Are we going to be disruptive to the water to the point that we just can't use it?" asked Paul Hertz, director of NASA's astrophysics division.

Using data from NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, the researchers identified cold traps as small as a few yards across and as wide as 18 miles and more, and used computer models to get all the way down to micrometers in size.

Scientists couldn't pull apart the chemical signature to definitively say how much was "molecular" water, the stuff we know as H2O, and how much was hydroxyl, a molecule that's one hydrogen atom short of becoming water (OH).

The water molecules are potentially trapped inside glass beads, a result of meteors and comets hitting the lunar surface, Honniball said. One challenge, though, is the tiny amount of water available: the concentrations detected by SOFIA are the equivalent of a 355-milliliter bottle of water in a cubic meter of regolith. Water is crucial to space missions, and according to Aussie astronomy professor Alan Duffy, it costs about $35,000 to launch a litre of bottled water from the Earth to the moon.

"However, don't expect to find hidden glaciers or ice caps", cautions Richard de Grijs, an astrophysicist at Australia's Macquarie University who was not involved in the study.

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NASA Has Discovered There Is More Water On The Moon Than They Thought

"Prior to the SOFIA observations, we knew there was some kind of hydration", says study lead author Casey Honniball from the University of Hawaii at Mānoa.

The form the water is in could also make it hard to use.

The water molecules - consisting of one oxygen and two hydrogen molecules - were detected via SOFIA's infrared spectrometer. "And of course if you're a fan of breathing, extra oxygen on hand is always a plus". Instruments such as the European Space Agency's (PROSPECT payload on Luna 27) will be able to make measurements on the Moon to "ground-truth" these tantalising glimpses of the wealth of information yet to be discovered.

Duffy adds: "Water can directly support astronauts on a planned Moon-base, used to grow food on long-duration missions to Mars, and even split into literal rocket fuel for powering our satellites and rockets across the Solar System". It gets awfully cold on an airless body if there's no sunlight-about -250º C (-418º F), in this case-and working in permanent darkness is no easy business, either.

"Without a thick atmosphere, water on the sunlit lunar surface should just be lost to space", said Honniball.

Micrometeorites raining down on the lunar surface, carrying small amounts of water, could deposit the water on the lunar surface upon impact.

In a press release, the space agency also said that the discovery is a significant development in the mission of sending the first woman and next man to the lunar surface in 2024. This is because scientists are able to use the resources available on the moon, which allows them to carry less water with them, and carry additional devices that enable scientific discoveries.

"We don't know yet if we can use it as a resource", NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said, but he added that learning more about the water is crucial to USA plans to explore the moon. Most of these molecules are likely stored in the voids between moon dust and other particles or entombed in the glassy residue of of micrometeorite impacts. "We knew there was frozen ice at the poles, and sometimes down in the bottoms of craters". "We would like to map the entire near side and also look at these volcanic features and central peaks that we think might be concentrating water", she said.

Other reports by Click Lancashire

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