Categories: Moon

Water Cycle on the Moon Remains a Mystery


“Water cycle on the Moon” is a phrase that many people – including lunar scientists – were never expecting to hear. This surprising new finding of ubiquitous water on the surface of the Moon, revealed and confirmed by three different spacecraft last year, has been one of the main topics of recent discussion and study by lunar researchers. But figuring out the cycle of how water appears and disappears over the lunar day remains elusive. As of now, scientists suspect a few different processes that could be delivering water and hydroxyl (OH) to the lunar surface: meteorites or comets hitting the Moon, outgassing from the Moon’s interior, or the solar wind interacting with the lunar regolith. But so far, none of the details of any of these processes are adding up.

Dana Hurley from The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory is part of team of scientists attempting to model the lunar water cycle, and she discussed the work at the NASA Lunar Science Institute’s third annual Lunar Forum at Ames Research Center, July 20-22, 2010.

“When we do the model, we assume the way that the water is lost is through photodissociation, and so that sets the timescale,” Hurley told Universe Today. “And using that timescale the amount that is coming in through the solar wind or micrometeorites can’t add up to the amount observed if it is in steady state, so something is not jiving.”

Photodissociation involves the breaking up of a substance into simpler components by the radiant energy of sunlight.

It appears the amount of water varies over the course of the lunar day. Two observations a week apart by a spectrometer on the repurposed Deep Impact spacecraft (now called EPOXI) showed the region that was near the Moon’s terminator at dawn had a detectable amount of water and hydroxyl, and a week later when it was near noon, those substances were gone. But the new region at dawn then had H2O and OH.

One theory holds that the water and hydroxyl are, in part, formed from hydrogen ions in the solar wind. By local noon, when the moon is at its warmest, some water and hydroxyl are lost. By evening, the surface cools again, and the water and hydroxyl return.

But, Hurley said, the solar wind in steady state does not reproduce the observed surface density of water and hydroxyl.

Additionally, looking at the other possible sources — the known source rate of micrometeoroids and comets — doesn’t provide the amount of observed H20 and OH either.

“We’d really like to have a lot more observations to understand how it evolves over the course of the day,” Hurley said.

Water in Polar Regions on the Moon Credit: ISRO/NASA/JPL-Caltech/Brown Univ./USGS

In her talk, Hurley said her team has been trying to look at all possible angles and ideas, including recent larger comet hits on the Moon, or potentially a seasonal event where water deposited at winter poles could be released when it warms up in summer. But so far none of these ideas have been tested or modeled, and as of now do not provide a solution to the daily cycle of water that was observed.

She also noted that since there are obviously some unique processes going on, the interaction between the surface and atmosphere needs more study.

“The surface and atmosphere are coupled,” Hurley said in an interview with Universe Today. “The atmosphere is produced from the surface; there is no atmosphere that lasts for a long time on the Moon and it is constantly being produced and lost. And so it is coming from the surface, either from something that is coming from the lunar regolith grains or something that is interacting with those grains, whether it is solar wind or something that is impacting. So, the surface is the source of the atmosphere and that atmosphere comes back and interacts with the surface again. And you really have to understand that whole system.”

So, what is her best guess as to the source of the water?

Hurley said there has to be some sort of recycling going on within the regolith, and perhaps a complex surface chemistry that allows the H20 and OH to exist for longer periods of time, which would better explain the surface density.

“What I’ve looked at is what could be happening in the atmosphere and how things hop around from the surface up and then back down to the surface,” she said. “The lunar regolith is rather loose, and these small particles and gases can go down within the regolith and be within the top several centimeters and work their way down and back out. So there is an exchange going on in that top layer that is kind of acting as a reservoir. That is my best guess of what is going on.”

Nancy Atkinson

Nancy has been with Universe Today since 2004. She is the author of a new book on the Apollo program, "Eight Years to the Moon," which shares the stories of 60 engineers and scientists who worked behind the scenes to make landing on the Moon possible. Her first book, "Incredible Stories from Space: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Missions Changing Our View of the Cosmos" tells the stories of those who work on NASA's robotic missions to explore the Solar System and beyond.

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