Water on the Moon

Article written: 14 Nov , 2009
Updated: 24 Dec , 2015
by

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Water has long been suspected to exist in the permanently shadowed polar craters on the Moon, and now the LCROSS impact has allowed scientists to make a direct and definitive finding of this precious resource in a place NASA and other space agencies are considering exploring with human expeditions. Many say this could be a game-changing discovery for the future of lunar science and exploration. Unlike the previous announcement in September of water on the Moon, where water exists diffusely across the moon as hydroxyl or water molecules adhering to the surface in low concentrations, this new discovery could mean underground reservoirs of water ice. “There is too much water to be just absorbed in the soil,” said Anthony Colaprete of the LCROSS mission at Friday’s press conference. “There has to be real solid ice there. You could melt it and drink it.”

But could you really drink it? “Well, not if it has methanol in it. We need to sort out the flavor of the water,” said Colaprete, “meaning we need to find out if it is water, ice, or vapor. We still need to do that math.”

Colaprete said from the amount of water the spectrometers on the LCROSS spacecraft detected, initial indications are it is ice. However, Colaprete added that the impacting Centaur upper stage didn’t hit appear to hit something hard and frozen, from the images of the crater.

If someone was walking on the Moon and was able to walk in Cabeus crater where the impact took place, would the regolith there look different compared to other places on the Moon? “That’s a good question โ€“ and we’ve been talking about that,” Colaprete said. “It would be an interesting place to walk around. With our near infrared camera we can relate the the data to what the human eye can see, and try to understand what the terrain looks like. We never saw the crater floor before impact, but now we can see what the floor looks like.”

Did they find anything else in the plume created by the impact? “We’re seeing a lot of stuff,” Colaprete said. “I think there’s a little bit of everything. Weโ€™re seeing other emission lines in the spectroscopic data we haven’t completely identified. We’re still working on those — I don’t know what all else is in there just yet. We’ve been focusing on the water quest so far.”

As to whether they’re seeing any organics, the team couldn’t yet say definitively. Colaprete said they are seeing compounds similar to those seen previously in asteroids and comets.

“This is only another snapshot in time of our understanding of the moon,” said Mike Wargo, NASA’s chief lunar scientist, ” and we’ll be continuing to work to get more details on the water and everything else. We’re not done yet.”

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17 Responses

  1. J. Major says

    The Centaur didn’t appear to hit something hard and frozen……that’s interesting!!! I wonder if the regolith there is slushy or spongy? Although at those low temps, wouldn’t water ice be rock-hard?

    Maybe there’s low-grade cryovolcanic activity on the Moon, like theorized to be on Titan? Very very interesting….oh the questions these answers have created! ๐Ÿ™‚

  2. m1980 says

    I’m happy.It’ll be a huge benefit to future astronauts and colonists when we return to the Moon. Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter became a historical mission.

  3. Jon Hanford says

    Great update, Nancy, of these recent findings by the LCROSS team. Maybe this is a good example of how good science works. Many laypeople following the mission wondered (online, at least) what was taking so long presenting results to the public. They wanted answers *now*, not realizing how long it takes to thoroughly comb through and analyze large datasets, reach a consensus, then writing up your observations for submission to appropriate journals. As pointed out, data analysis from this mission has just begun.

    On a related note, we now know of one spot on the moon has substantial amounts of water and other compounds. With a better understanding of the organics detected by LCROSS, future missions might be designed to map out the distribution of water and other organics at the lunar polar regions. LCROSS data may help scientists design discriminators for future, orbital missions to map water distribution and quantify how much is there.

  4. Member
    Aqua says

    “We’re seeing a lot of stuff,”

    WAY double extra groovy cool! Here’s hoping they see some Helium 3!

  5. Hannes says

    Please go back to the Moon asap, humanity can’t wait!

  6. SteveZodiac says

    It looks like the nature of “out there” may be a little friendlier than we thought. Learning to live off the land and extract water and other vital compounds from a relatively sparse supply will have a huge benefits back on earth as welll

  7. Torbjorn Larsson OM says

    Ah, so that’s why people started to go on about “organics found”.

    Well, I hope so. Wouldn’t it be nice if the fastest and possibly cheapest way to get to comet (and asteroid) stuff is to fetch it on the Moon? Granted, weathered in some ways by space and possible transport processes before it was stashed away in the now polar craters, but still.

    Then again (and again and again, I find this a too fascinating possibility to not pick at :-o), there will be rather pristine pieces of old, old Earth in there, blown off by impactors. There will be a historical record of minerals, diverse isotopes, organics and pieces of abiogenetic and “genetic”, life, processes more or less frozen in time. Can’t wait to see people start to dig in at this set dessert table!

  8. Andrew says

    The non-hard-and-frozen substance may be nothing less than snow which got melted by the impact.

  9. Lawrence B. Crowell says

    I am not sure if this opens the door wide to colonizing the moon. I think we have a long way before that. I can’t help but think of the Gordon Lightfoot song “Too Many Clues” with the line:

    The space shuttle ends where the subway begins,
    There’s a tear on the face of the moon.

    We might question to what extent the universe we can get our hands on is something we should exploit (or rape), and convert into higher entropy forms called garbage.

    LC

  10. emergion says

    This is very interesting news but I am interested as to why they needed this mission and did not find out more about water whilst man was actually on the moon? I

    Regards.

  11. Vanamonde says

    Such wonderful news! We can drink and we can make one of the best rocket fuels there is! Living on the moon and to supply L5-type colonies just got a lot easier. And now, with the news that poles of the moon are The Coldest Places in the Solar System, we may even find carbon and nitrogen compounds (like methane and ammonia and other volatiles.

  12. DrFlimmer says

    @ emergion:

    The reason why the astronauts didn’t pick up any water is quite simple:

    Water resides only on the moon in places where the sun never shines. Deep craters at the poles are such places. Water in places where the sun can shine becomes sublimated and vanishes.
    The astronauts didn’t land close to the poles. In fact, they landed close to the equator, because it is much easier to go there.

  13. Vanamonde says

    emergion, these is the South Polar region, a long way from where the moon landing occurred. It is a land of etheral night, no sunlight EVEN gets into these crater bottoms.

    Lawrence B. Crowell, no, it is not going to be easy, but a lot more possible now. But I must say, I have no love of the dead, dark moon. It is biosphere that are precious to me and we need more biosphere. I am willing to strip mine the moon to make biosphere and save Biosphere One. We have been abusing it horribly and that wonders me. We need to build many, many more, starting in lunar orbit (see “High Frontiers” by O’Neal). It is the only way to stop the gigadeath that is coming in the next hundred years and provide enough space for the species to grow without fouling the nest.

  14. Olaf says

    First of all I would have prefered a robot lander on the moon instead of this impactor, because this impact is a few seconds event and the robots would be longer.
    But landing a robot over there is not that simple if you think about it. It is pitch dark, never sun so no solar power cells, you need a nuclear power device to flood the area with light to see what is out there.
    The other problem would be communication. If you are in this crated at the poles you have no communication with the Earth since you are outside line of sight.because of the crater wall. So you need to send communication satellites first.

  15. Lawrence B. Crowell says

    Vanamonde: When I was in high school and read O’Neill’s stuff I used to think this way as well. I have in more recent years learned a lot and come to understand things better. If we are to prevent some global collapse it will require that we simply stop doing a lot of things we are doing. Setting up a little habitat-zone or dome on the moon is not going to do much to secure our survival.

    To survive into the future in some advanced fashion, and not as some post techno-tribal bands of remnant populations digging through the detritus of our current age, we simply have to change our behaviors. This means we must rein in our appetites, stop engaging in fear and hatred of each other based on contrived ideations, and stop organizing campaigns of disinformation and ignorance. What we need to stop is FGHI (fear, greed, hate, ignorance), which sadly is the corner stone of most political or economic doctrines as they trend to extremes. This is what we must do in order to stop committing damage to the planet and evil against each other. If we can do this, them maybe we can push on in the future — and maybe into space.

    Lawrence B. Crowell

  16. solrey says

    lbc, well said, totally agree and thanks for putting those thoughts out there.
    If humanity conquering it’s ‘demons’ were only so easy as lofting humanity onto luna, eh?
    peace

  17. Vanamonde says

    Mr. Crowell and solrey, I do not disagree with you…in the short term (like in the next hundred years or so). Marshall Savage points out if the the entire industrial output of the planet was dedicated to putting people in space (and not even worrying about where they are going), it will still would not keep up with the current population explosion. We have hard lessons ahead to learn how to live with limiting our reproduction and “to step lightly on the earth”. But for the long term (millennia), we will move out to the cold and dark, where the sun never stops shining. It is our destiny and not a matter of if, only when. And the hard lessons (paid for in the coming era of gigadeath) that we will learn in how to live with sustainible growth will be even more valuable to living in a manufactured biosphere.

    but I am still very happy to hear about the water on the Moon!

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