The Moon isn’t as dry as we thought! NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) has spotted “moving water molecules” around the near side of the Moon.

Last year, scientists confirmed the presence of ice near the Moon’s poles. And more recently we’ve learned that liquid water does indeed exist within the lunar surface material, called regolith. Now, the LRO has revealed that the water present on the Moon’s surface actually moves around during lunar daytime. This could be a big deal for future human missions to the Moon.

“This is an important new result about lunar water, a hot topic as our nation’s space program returns to a focus on lunar exploration,” said Dr. Kurt Retherford, the principal investigator of the LAMP instrument from Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas. “We recently converted the LAMP’s light collection mode to measure reflected signals on the lunar dayside with more precision, allowing us to track more accurately where the water is and how much is present.”

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The discovery is described in a paper published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters by researchers from the John Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.

“Water molecules remain tightly bound to the regolith until surface temperatures peak near lunar noon. Then, molecules thermally desorb and can bounce to a nearby location that is cold enough for the molecule to stick or populate the Moon’s extremely tenuous atmosphere or exosphere until temperatures drop and the molecules return to the surface,” NASA sums up the water’s behavior.

Scientists have hypothesized that the solar wind’s hydrogen ions may be the source of most of the Moon’s surface water. With that in mind, when the Moon passes behind the Earth and is shielded from the solar wind, the “water spigot” should essentially turn off. However, the water observed by LAMP does not decrease when the Moon is shielded by the Earth. And the region influenced by its magnetic field, suggesting water builds up over time, rather than “raining” down directly from the solar wind.

The more water on the Moon, the less time and resources we have to spend in trying to get there.

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Thumbnail image credit: NASA