There might be far more water on the moon than previously thought, according to two studies published on Monday, raising the tantalizing prospect that astronauts on future space missions could find refreshment — and maybe even fuel — on the lunar surface.
The moon was believed to be bone dry until about a decade ago, when a series of findings suggested that our nearest celestial neighbor had traces of water ice in permanently shadowed craters at its polar regions.
Two new studies published in Nature Astronomy suggest water could be even more widespread, including the first confirmation that it is present even in easier-to-access sunlit areas.
If this water could be extracted, it could give astronauts traveling to the moon and beyond access to drinking water. They might even be able to split the molecules to make rocket fuel. That is of particular interest to NASA, which is planning a human mission to the moon in 2024 and wants to build a sustainable presence there by the end of the decade to prepare for onward travel to Mars.
The new study was able to “unambiguously” distinguish the spectral fingerprint of molecular water in a sunlit area, said lead author Casey Honniball, of the Hawaii Institute of Geophysics and Planetology.
“If we find the water is abundant enough in certain locations we may be able to use it as a resource for human exploration,” said Honniball, who is also a postdoctoral fellow at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.
Previous research has found indications of water on the sunlit surface — but these were unable to distinguish between water (H2O) and hydroxyl, a molecule made up of one hydrogen atom and one oxygen atom that is a common drain cleaner on Earth.
Using data from the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy Airborne Telescope, researchers used a more precise wavelength than had been used before — 6 microns instead of 3.
They found a water concentration of about 100 to 400 parts per million at Clavius crater, one of the largest to be visible from Earth.
“That’s roughly equivalent to a 12-ounce [350ml] bottle of water within a cubic meter of volume of lunar soil,” Honniball said at a NASA press conference.
These are not “puddles of water,” she said, but scattered molecules that do not form ice or liquid water.
Researchers believe they originate from solar winds or micro-meteorites and think they might either be trapped in beads of glass or within the grains of the lunar surface to protect them from the harsh atmosphere.
In the second study, researchers looked at the moon’s polar regions, where water ice has been detected in lunar craters that never see sunlight. NASA in 2009 found water crystals in a deep crater near the moon’s southern pole, but the new study found evidence of billions of micro-craters that could each cradle a miniscule amount of ice.
“If you were standing on the moon near one of the poles, you would see a whole ‘galaxy’ of little shadows speckled across the surface,” said lead author Paul Hayne of the Department of Astrophysics at the University of Colorado.
“Each of these tiny shadows — most of them smaller than a coin — would be extremely cold, and most of them cold enough to harbor ice. [This] “suggests that water could be much more widespread on the moon than previously thought,” Hayne said.
The authors say this could mean that approximately 40,000km2 of the lunar surface has the capacity to trap water.
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