There’s Water On the Moon’s Surface, But Interior Could Be Dry


With all the recent news of water on the Moon, a new paper published today in the journal Science may offer a surprise – or it may bring us back to previous assumptions about the Moon. A new analysis of eleven lunar samples from the Apollo missions by Zachary Sharp from the University of New Mexico and his colleagues indicates that when the Moon formed, its interior was essentially dry. While the recent findings of ubiquitous water and hydroxyl on the surface as well as water ice in the lunar poles are not challenged by this new finding, it does dispute — somewhat — two other recent papers that proposed a wetter lunar interior than previously thought. “The recent LCROSS findings were of water on the lunar surface due to cometary impacts, and the ice is from the comets themselves,” Sharp told Universe Today. “We are talking about water that was present in the molten early Moon 4.5 billion years ago.”

The accepted theory of how the Moon formed is that a Mars-sized body slammed into our early Earth, creating a big disk of debris that would ultimately form into the Moon.

Although planetary scientists are still refining models of the Moon’s formation, there is much to suggest a dry Moon. Any water would have been vaporized by the high temperatures generated by the impact and cataclysm that followed, and vapor would have escaped into space. The assumption is that the only way there could be water in the Moon’s interior if is the impactor was especially water-rich, and also if the Moon solidified quickly, which is considered unlikely.

But earlier this year, Francis McCubbin and his team from the Carnegie Institution for Science released their findings of a surprisingly high abundance of water molecules — as high as several thousand parts per million — bound to phosphate minerals within volcanic lunar rocks, which would have formed well beneath the lunar surface and date back several billion years.

Additionally, in 2008, Alberto Saal of Brown University and colleagues found a slightly lower abundance of water in the lunar mantle, but it was significantly higher than the previous estimate of 1 part per billion.
These two findings have been pushing lunar scientists to find possible alternative explanations for the Moon’s formation to account for all the water.

But now, Sharp and his team studied a wide range of lunar basalts and measured the composition of chlorine isotopes. Using gas source mass spectrometry they found a wide range of chlorine isotopes contained in the samples which are 25 times greater than what is found in rocks and minerals from Earth and from meteorites.
Chlorine is very hydrophilic, or attracted to water, and is an extremely sensitive indicator of hydrogen levels. Sharp and his team say that, if lunar rocks had initial hydrogen contents anywhere close to those of terrestrial rocks, then the fractionation of chlorine into so many different isotopes would never have happened on the Moon. Because of this Sharp and his colleagues say their results suggest a very dry interior of the Moon.

Sharp proposes that Saal and McCubbin’s calculations of high hydrogen contents in some lunar samples are not typical, and perhaps those samples are the product of certain igneous processes that resulted in their “extremely volatile enrichment.” They do not, however, represent the high and variable isotopic chlorine values reported in the majority of lunar rocks, Sharp said.

Still, there could be a compromise between the varied findings. “There are uncertainties that one has to take into account when doing this type of study, ” Sharp told Universe Today, “and if we take the low estimates of Saal and McCubbin’s papers, they are not so different from our findings.”

But the discrepancies, however small, show that perhaps we can’t make generalizations about the entire Moon from limited samples.

“We have not yet looked for water in a wide range of lunar samples,” said Jeff Taylor from the University of Hawaii, who was not involved in any of the aforementioned studies. “It is quite possible that the initial differentiation of the Moon and subsequent processes such as mantle overturn concentrated whatever water the Moon had into certain areas. Until we measure more samples, including samples from the farside (represented by many of the lunar meteorites and eventually by sample-return missions), we will not know for sure how much water is in the bulk Moon.”

In combination, all the recent studies of the lunar surface show there is likely a complex chemistry on the Moon that we have yet to understand.

“In other words,” said Taylor, “we need more work!”

Source: Science News

Earlier Papers:

Nominally hydrous magmatism on the Moon by Francis McCubbin et al., 2010.

Volatile content of lunar volcanic glasses and the presence of water in the Moon’s interior, Alberto Saal et al. Nature.

9 Replies to “There’s Water On the Moon’s Surface, But Interior Could Be Dry”

  1. “In other words,” said Taylor, “we need more work!”

    Yeah, and we need to go back to the Moon — pronto!

  2. Water chemistry, not water, ice particles. just 1ppb in mantle rocks and surface ice particles, not water are the facts. exaggerated statements abound that there is water on the lunar surface or in the interior. H2O forms strong dipole hydrogen bonds coehisive molecular tensions between dust rocks and minerals bonding them strongly attracted together. Without wind water erosion, there are no surface rocks that can form as on earth sedimentary surface deposits form. not any liquid water can exist on the moon or it would immediately react become bound up as ice particles mixed with soils and dust,. there are no geologic ice deposits of purity on the moon.. the gravity mass of the moon is weaker then on earth to form an inner molten nickel iron core necessary for strong magnetic field that perhaps helps retain an atmosphere.

  3. Hydrogen Oxide exists in 3 common states: solid ice, liquid water, and vapor gas. What they call water, they should be calling ice. The controversy is based on whether or not there is some unproven liquid water on the moon. Igneous metamorphic sedimentary rocks in terrestial planetary solar systems must have at least traces of water content in all rocks, bound up inside the mineral aggregates as hydroxides OH-. most ice discovered is beneath polar impact crater rims where the angle of sunlight doesn’t penetrate inside the wall to sublime it away or thaw mix by absorption with abundant surface dust to form ice particles. The moon is a desolate water dry place , Mars has far more ice, and dendritic tributaries from running water that still remain after several billions years ago.

  4. Water chemistry, not water, ice particles. just 1ppb in mantle rocks and surface ice particles, not water are the facts. exaggerated statements abound that there is water on the lunar surface or in the interior.

    You will have to read the article again. _The facts_ are that there are measurements that are hard to reconcile measurements – the article says so. And at a guess there is some controversy based on this conundrum.

  5. the space elevator could be ready by 2012, and your own stem cells can heal you perhaps everybody within the next 10 years. by then you might get your wish and be healthy enough to go to the moon and leave a dangerous planet like Hawking says we must to survive.

  6. Wasn’t it Gene Shoemaker who said, “Lunar study so far has been rather like studying the Sierra Nevada by looking at the gravel in a stream bed.” ?

    Inferring elemental composition in Luna’s interior is an ‘iffy’ proposition at best at this stage of the ‘game’. It will definitely be interesting to actually go there and find out more! Can’t wait!

  7. No scientist should ever jump to such drastic conclusions based on such little data. Certainly the work he’s done so far is very important, but it should only be one component of a much larger body of research. Science is full of surprises, which often knock conventional wisdom from its foundation, and we should not assume that everything we know about Earth geology can be fully applicable to the moon. No one can truly say what is at the moon’s interior without deep core samples or some form of advanced geological imaging. I think for Sharp to make such bold statements is irresponsible and possibly more for press-seeking than for finding out true answers.

  8. @TorbJorn
    measurements that are hard to reconcile for the scientists? they said they must take the low estimates of lesser amounts from previous measurements. they also try to say that the entire moon has not been sampled yet. Unfortunately the moon is dessicated of liquid water, and the next nearest solar system moon or planet that might still contain liquid water is likely Mars having an atmosphere to maintain water vapor with substantially more gravity then the moon. Europa has ice and likely cold liquid water seas under tidal friction. Even when mining for precious rare earth minerals, it is costly when they are hard to find, likewise these scientists struck out by not finding very much ice, so they try to improve their existances by calling it water!

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