Water on Moon: New studies gather conclusive data about widespread presence

By Rahul Vaimal, Associate Editor
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Moon Surface Image
Representational Image

The moon lacks the liquid water bodies that are a defining feature of Earth, but scientists have recently said that lunar water is more widespread than previously known. 

The studies found that water molecules are trapped on the surface of the Moon within mineral grains while even more water may be hidden in ice patches that reside in permanent shadows.

Conclusive data

While research 11 years ago indicated that water was relatively widespread in small amounts on the moon, the first indisputable detection of water molecules on the lunar surface is now reported by a team of scientists. At the same time, another team reports that the moon has permanent shadows of approximately 40,000 square kilometers that could potentially contain hidden pockets of water in the form of ice.

Water is a precious resource and a relatively plentiful lunar presence could prove important to future astronaut and robotic missions seeking to extract and utilize water for purposes such as a drinking supply or a fuel ingredient.

Molecular water on the lunar surface, trapped inside natural glass or between debris grains, was found by a team led by NASA’s (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) Goddard Space Flight Center. Previous observations of water and its molecular cousin hydroxyl have suffered from uncertainty, but the latest detection used a method that provided clear results.

The only way for this water to survive is to be blended into mineral grains on the sunlit lunar surfaces where it was observed, shielding it from the frigid and foreboding environment. The researchers used data from the SOFIA airborne observatory, a Boeing 747SP aircraft adapted to hold a telescope.

“A lot of people think that the detection we have made is water ice, which is not true. It’s just the water molecules because they’re so spread out they don’t interact with each other to form water ice or even liquid water,” said a member of the team that led the study.

Cold traps

The second research on the same theme and which was published recently, centered on so-called cold traps on the moon. This refers to the regions on the moon surface that exist in a state of absolute darkness where temperatures are below nearly negative 163 degrees Celsius. That’s cold enough for billions of years of frozen water to stay intact.

Using data from NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft, researchers observed what could be tens of billions of tiny shadows, many no larger than a small coin, as part of the study. Most of them are located in the polar region.

“Our research shows that a multitude of previously unknown regions of the moon could harbor water ice,” said a team member. “Our results suggest that water could be much more widespread in the moon’s polar regions than previously thought, making it easier to access, extract and analyze.”

NASA is planning a return of astronauts to the moon, a mission envisioned as paving the way for a later journey carrying a crew to Mars. Accessible sources where water can be harvested on the moon would be beneficial to those endeavors. “Water is not just constrained to the polar region. It’s more spread out than we thought it was,” the report said.

Where does it come from?

Another mystery that remains unsolved is the source of the lunar water.

“The origin of water on the moon is one of the big-picture questions we are trying to answer through this and other research. Currently, the major contenders are comets, asteroids or small interplanetary dust particles, the solar wind, and the moon itself through outgassing from volcanic eruptions,” the study states.

Earth is a wet world, with vast salty oceans, large freshwater lakes and ice caps that serve as water reservoirs.

The research points out that, “As our closest planetary companion, understanding the origins of water on the moon can also shed light on the origins of Earth’s water still an open question in planetary science.”