A new study shows there is more water on the moon than ever thought. That’s great news for NASA, which plans to return astronauts to the moon in 2024.
Our moon holds more water in more places than previously thought, according to two studies published Monday.
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Until around a decade ago, people thought the moon was bone dry. But a series of findings showed our natural satellite had traces of water ice in permanently-shadowed craters at its polar regions.
Previous observations have indicated millions of tons of ice in the permanently shadowed craters of the moon’s poles. Now, a pair of studies in the journal Nature Astronomy suggests water could be even more widespread. It could be located even in sunlit areas.
More than 15,400 square miles (40,000 square kilometers) of lunar terrain have the capability to trap water in the form of ice, according to a team led by the University of Colorado’s Paul Hayne. That’s 20% more area than previous estimates.
NASA plans to return astronauts to the lunar surface in 2024. That’s the first step toward a permanent outpost and eventual journeys to Mars.
If people can extract that water, it means that astronauts could use it as drinking water. They might even be able to split the molecules to make rocket fuel.
Having ready supplies of water on the lunar surface would be a boon for colonists there. That’s because it’s extremely expensive to transport water there.
NASA’s astrophysics director Paul Hertz said it’s too soon to know whether this water — found in and around the southern hemisphere’s sunlit Clavius Crater — would be accessible. The surface could be harder there, ruining wheels and drills.
These latest findings, nonetheless, expand the possible landing spots for robots and astronauts alike.
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,” Honniball, who is also a postdoctoral fellow at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, told AFP.
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As for the shadowed areas rich in frozen water, temperatures are so low that they could hold onto the water for millions or even billions of years.
Any water in those areas would have likely come from meteorites, comets, and other objects that once slammed into the Moon’s surface.
The researchers identified those cold traps near the moon’s north and south poles using data from NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.
For the recent study, the researchers used data from NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) Airborne Telescope. They used a more precise wavelength than had been used before—6 microns instead of 3.
Scientists found a water concentration of about 100 to 400 parts per million at Clavius crater. That’s one of the largest to be visible from Earth.
“That’s roughly equivalent to a 12 ounce (350 milliliters) bottle of water within a cubic meter of volume of lunar soil,” Honniball said in a NASA press conference.
These are not “puddles of water”, she stressed, 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.
The researchers did not open up about how much water might be present. But according to them, anything in these regions should be easy to harvest.
NASA plans to launch a water-seeking rover named Viper to the moon’s south pole by the end of 2022. Astronauts would follow in a series of missions intended to set up long-term bases.