Yes, There’s Water on the Moon

Three different spacecraft have confirmed there is water on the Moon. It hasn’t been found in deep dark craters or hidden underground. Data indicate that water exists diffusely across the moon as hydroxyl or water molecules — or both — adhering to the surface in low concentrations. Additionally, there may be a water cycle in which the molecules are broken down and reformulated over a two week cycle, which is the length of a lunar day. This does not constitute ice sheets or frozen lakes: the amounts of water in a given location on the Moon aren’t much more than what is found in a desert here on Earth. But there’s more water on the Moon than originally thought.

The Moon was believed to extremely dry since the return of lunar samples from the Apollo and Luna programs. Many Apollo samples contain some trace water or minor hydrous minerals, but these have typically been attributed to terrestrial contamination since most of the boxes used to bring the Moon rocks to Earth leaked. This led the scientists to assume that the trace amounts of water they found came from Earth air that had entered the containers. The assumption remained that, outside of possible ice at the moon’s poles, there was no water on the moon.

Forty years later, an instrument on board the ill-fated Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft, the Moon Mineralogy Mapper (M cubed) found that infrared light was being absorbed near the lunar poles at wavelengths consistent with hydroxyl- and water-bearing materials.

M3 analyzes the way that light from the sun reflects off the lunar surface to understand what materials comprise the lunar soil. Light is reflected in different wavelengths off of different minerals, and specifically, the instrument detected wavelengths of reflected light that would indicate a chemical bond between hydrogen and oxygen. Given water’s well-known chemical symbol, H2O, which represents two hydrogen atoms bonded to one oxygen atom, this discovery was a source of great interest to the researchers.

The instrument can only see the very uppermost layers of the lunar soil – perhaps to a few centimeters below the surface. The scientists were looking for a signature of water in the craters near the poles, but found evidence for water instead on the sunlit portions of the moon. This was certainly unexpected and the science team from M3 looked and re-looked at their data for several months.

Confirmation came from a recent flyby of the re-purposed Deep Impact probe, on its way to rendezvous with another comet in 2010. In June of 2009, the spectrometer on board also showed strong evidence that water is ubiquitous over the surface of the moon.

Jessica Sunshine and colleagues with Deep Impact also found the presence of bound water or hydroxyl in trace amounts over much of the Moon’s surface. Their results suggest that the formation and retention of these molecules is an ongoing process on the lunar surface – and that solar wind could be responsible for forming them.

Still another spacecraft, the Cassini spacecraft while on its way to Saturn, also flew by the Moon in 1999. Roger Clark, a U.S. Geological Survey spectroscopist on the M3 team, reanalyzed archival data from Cassini, and that data as well agreed with the finding that water appears to be widespread across the lunar surface.

There are potentially two types of water on the moon: exogenic, meaning water from outside sources, such as comets striking the moon’s surface, and endogenic, meaning water that originates on the moon. The M3 research team, which includes Larry Taylor of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, suspect that the water they’re seeing in the moon’s surface is endogenic.

But where did the water come from?

The team from M3 believe it may come from the solar wind.

As the sun undergoes nuclear fusion, it constantly emits a stream of particles, mostly protons, which are positively charged hydrogen atoms. On Earth, the atmosphere and magnetism prevent us from being bombarded by these protons, but the moon lacks that protection, meaning the oxygen-rich minerals and glasses on the surface of the moon are constantly pounded by hydrogen in the form of protons, moving at velocities of one-third the speed of light.

When those protons hit the lunar surface with enough force, suspects Taylor, they break apart oxygen bonds in soil materials, and where free oxygen and hydrogen are together, there’s a high chance that trace amounts of water will be formed. These traces are thought to be about a quart of water per ton of soil.

“The isotopes of oxygen that exist on the moon are the same as those that exist on Earth, so it was difficult if not impossible to tell the difference between water from the moon and water from Earth,” said Taylor. “Since the early soil samples only had trace amounts of water, it was easy to make the mistake of attributing it to contamination.”

Lead image caption: Schematic showing the stream of charged hydrogen ions carried from the Sun by the solar wind. One possible scenario to explain hydration of the lunar surface is that during the daytime, when the Moon is exposed to the solar wind, hydrogen ions liberate oxygen from lunar minerals to form OH and H2O, which are then weakly held to the surface. At high temperatures (red-yellow) more molecules are released than adsorbed. When the temperature decreases (green-blue) OH and H2O accumulate. Image courtesy of University of Maryland/F. Merlin/McREL

Source: Science

9 Replies to “Yes, There’s Water on the Moon”

  1. It’s fitting that an article talking about water being generated from solar wind hitting oxygen atoms on the Moon’s surface also happens to mention the name of one of the deep impact scientists: Jessica Sunshine =D

  2. This is a surprising, but welcome finding. I wonder if anyone had made this prediction ahead of time. In retrospect it seems simple enough. I think most would have assumed the water would be a transient feature and not be found in any significant amount. It seems stupid in retrospect that those analyzing the Apollo samples dismissed rather than leave open to question the finding of water in the samples. It is very good news that one can land anywhere and setup a base with access to water. There won’t be a land rush to claim the poles as a limited water resource. The most valuable real estate on the moon would now be areas with valuable minerals, permanent sunshine for power generation or permanent darkness for astronomical projects.

  3. Before we all get too excited about water on the Moon in does in fact seem to confirm two things.

    One that the rocks of the Moon do not contain water in the way that similar rocks on Earth do.

    Two that water in its OH form cannot be soaked up with a sponge and drunk.

    The conclusion seems to be that 1 quart (circa 1 litre) per ton is not enough to support any sort of Moon Base.

  4. Following Brian’s comment – what does the process intail harvesting liquid h2o from this form? Is it feasible?

  5. Excellent! How useful is that!

    Water on the Moon has just given an absolutely massive boost to human space travel. A local base to start from, lower gravity to launch from, air to breath, water to drink and fuel to explore Mars and the rest f the Solar system – utterly stunning.

    Thank God!

  6. Water on the moon is interesting – but what about the possibility of life?

    This is from a 2006 COSPAR paper. In order to comply with the strict censorship guidelines, no other information is given:

    “If true, the theory also suggests the extreme likelihood that at least microbial life inhabits any world where life can survive; and that the nearest extraterrestrial life may be found as frozen, ice covered spores in the permanent shadows of our own moon.”

  7. I have commented some on this matter on the other UT site on this. I really doubt there is enough water to hydrate a lunar colony, and maybe enough water to launch a model rocket or one of those hand pump water rockets.


  8. Okay, so sputtering is recognized now as a source of water / hydroxyl @ the moon’s surface and in the atmosphere of Mercury.

    Does this mean we should revisit the source of water / hydroxyl in the comas of comets in the same light? This is the same process expounded by Wal Thornhill:

    “The hydroxyl radical, OH, is the most abundant cometary radical. It is detected in the coma at some distance from the comet nucleus, where it is assumed that water (H2O) is broken down by solar UV radiation to form OH, H and O. It is chiefly the presence of this radical that leads to estimates of the amount of water ice sublimating from the comet nucleus. The comas of O and OH are far less extensive than the H coma but have comparable density.”

    “The negatively charged oxygen atom, or negative oxygen ion, has been detected close to cometary nuclei. And the spectrum of neutral oxygen (O) shows a “forbidden line” indicative of the presence of an “intense” electric field. The discovery at comet Halley of negative ions puzzled investigators because they are easily destroyed by solar radiation. They wrote, “an efficient production mechanism, so far unidentified, is required to account for the observed densities.” And the intense electric field near the comet nucleus is inexplicable if it is merely an inert body ploughing through the solar wind.”

    “Let’s see how the electrical model of comets explains these mysteries. The electric field near the comet nucleus is expected if a comet is a highly negatively charged body, relative to the solar wind. Cathode sputtering of the comet nucleus will strip atoms and molecules directly from solid rock and charge them negatively. So the presence of negative oxygen and other ions close to the comet nucleus is to be expected. Negative oxygen ions will be accelerated away from the comet in the cathode jets and combine with protons from the solar wind to form the observed OH radical at some distance from the nucleus.”

    “The important point is that the OH does not need to come from water ice on, or in, the comet.”

    Thornhill qualifies the last statement thus:

    “Of course, some water is likely to be present on a comet or asteroid. It depends upon their parent body. And since there are many moons in the outer solar system and the rings of Saturn with copious water ice, we may expect some smaller bodies like comets and asteroids to have some too.”

    In any event, sputtering seems to be an increasingly common explanation for OH / H2O detection on other bodies. Does this imply that we should objectively re-evaluate their genesis in the locale of cometary nuclei / comas? Stardust and other instruments have pretty consistently turned up a lack of water and volatiles and captured rocky minerals / crystals that could have only formed in high temperature regions.

    Could the OH / H2O detections in comas have been little more than a red herring, making us THINK they’re water-icy objects, when in fact they’re simply rocky objects being sputtered with the sputtered materials (oxygen from silicates?) recombining with the solar wind to locally produce the OH / H2O abundances?

    Just an open question. One that seems reasonable to me in light of recent data from Mercury and the Moon. Might also impact the study of the “cometary” plumes @ Enceladus. But that’s just speculative on my part (though Thornhill has in fact mentioned the same possibility in slightly more detail).


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