Solar Protons + Lunar Dust = Lots of Water on the Moon

By Eliza Strickland | September 24, 2009 12:50 pm

moon-waterWhile it’s not quite time to build the first lunar swimming pool, scientists do report that they’ve found the chemical signature for water all over the moon‘s surface, not just in the permanently shadowed craters near the poles that recent studies suggested might harbor ice. The findings give new hope to people dreaming of a lunar settlement where astronauts could live off the land.

Evidence of both both water and a closely related molecule called hydroxyl was detected by India’s first lunar probe, Chandrayaan-1, which scientists later lost contact with. The findings were then backed up by measurements from NASA’s Deep Impact and Cassini probes, and the three teams’ papers have been published in Science.

Chandrayaan-1 scientist Carle Pieters explains that the water was easy to miss. “When we say ‘water on the moon’, we are not talking about lakes, oceans or even puddles. Water on the moon means molecules of water and hydroxyl that interact with molecules of rock and dust specifically in the top millimetres of the moon’s surface” [The Times], she says. The scientists say their measurements indicate that the moon has the equivalent of one quart of water per ton of material.

While some of the water may be the result of icy comet crashes, researchers think most of it is produced naturally on the moon as a result of the so-called solar wind, laden with charged hydrogen particles, impacting with the oxygen-rich lunar soil [Bloomberg]. And the amount of water seemed to reflect the moon’s day-night cycle: the lunar soils became increasingly damp during sunlight hours, but dried out again at the end of the lunar day. The waves of damp and dry conditions suggest water is created on the moon every lunar day [The Guardian].

For decades, scientists assumed that the moon was bone-dry. Samples of lunar soil brought back from NASA’s Apollo missions about four decades ago actually did show signs of water, but most scientists working with the samples … dismissed the readings as contamination from humid Houston air that seeped in before the rocks were analyzed [The New York Times]. Since then, probes like the 1998 Lunar Prospector and Japan’s recent orbiter, Kaguya, have focused on looking for ice traces at the poles.

Some exploration advocates will likely use the new findings as an argument for establishing a permanent lunar outpost complete with industrial plants to extract water from the soil and rock. But scientists note that since the water molecules are only thought to be present in the top few millimeters of the surface, extraction would be quite a task. Says Deep Impact scientist Lori Feaga: “You would have to scrape the area of a baseball field or a football field to get one quart of water” [The New York Times].

NASA’s two current moon probes may soon produce more info on lunar water—the crash-lander is expected to slam into a polar crater on October 9, while the orbiter will analyze the plume of material kicked up.

Related Content:

80beats: Close-Up of the Moon Reveals Coldest Place in the Solar System & Possible Ice
80beats: India’s First Moon Mission Ends Abruptly With a Lost Signal
80beats: NASA to Moon: We’re Back. Got Any Ice?
80beats: Disappointing News: No Icy Patches in the Lunar Craters
80beats: The Moon Once Held Water, Moon Pebbles Show

Image: University of Maryland / F. Merlin / McREL

MORE ABOUT: moon, water
  • Matt

    Scraping a baseball field area on the surface of the Moon for a quart of water will probably still be cheaper than lifting it from Earth. And if we extract oxygen from the Lunar soil artificially, and capture hydrogen from the solar wind, we may be much more efficient than natural processes in producing water — and generate electricity as a bonus.

  • Ralph

    And we could also use it to make silane (SiH4) for rocket fuel. Also, you can react Hydrogen with hot ilmanite (a slightly magnetic mineral, a multiple oxide of iron and titanium) to produce iron grains, titanium dioxide and water vapor. Condense the water vapor and run it through an electrolisis cell to produce oxygen and hydrogen. Breath the oxygen and cycle the hydrogen back through the reactor. You could also run the iron and titanium dioxide through a magnetic seperator to get iron. Melt and cast the iron and save the cost of sending the metal up there.

  • Carole Ford

    I always thought it was funny that the Moon was supposed to be the only dry body

  • scribbler

    Instead of scraping the surface of the moon at random, why not “farm” it?

    If we spread out lunar soil on a grid and at the optimum time, “squeeze” the water out and then spread out more…

    Also, my guess is that there is an artificial means to make the best use of the solar wind to produce not only water but as Ralph suggests, many other valuable materials.

    Yep, confirms to me, anyway, that our next step to future space exploration is a moon base…

  • Adam

    The Moon’s polar regions should be wetter than the average, even away from the permanent shade. That’s way cool…

  • silly monkey

    Since the hydrogen is bombarding the moon from the sun, it would make more sense to me to collect the hydrogen directly.

    Oxygen sounds like it would have to be collected from the soil.

  • scribbler

    Actually, it isn’t hydrogen but protons from hydrogen that make up the majority of the solar wind…

    But that got me to thinking that all the protons from the hydrogen and other elements need are electrons to make them atoms again. These should be easily supplied by any electrical field that the atoms would contact. If this is the case, we could use solar panels to generate electricity, perhaps simply arc across two poles and let the protons and nuclei of the atoms pick up electrons from the arc and snap, you have hydrogen and trace amounts of other things…

  • marion greenwood

    If moon rock water has a signature similar to deep earth rock water this is yet more proof that a giant impact of a mercury like planet which previously had it’s rocky outer shell knocked off in an earlier separate collision (and was now a solid iron/titanium sphere) into proto earth 3.9 billion years ago. The iron sphere knocked out proto earth’s existing, solid, rocky, spherical core from a liquid, magma and gaseous surround but kept it close through joint gravitational pull to contribute to earth’s micro instability in a monthly cycle. That rocky sphere is what we now call our moon and more proof of the giant collision remains to this day centrally located on the far side of the moon in the form of the St Pierre-Aitken crater (dated at 3.9 billion years of age and the largest impact crater in the entire solar system 7 miles deep by 1500 miles wide). Huge cracks, lava basins and a near side that has the appearance of having once been roasted, remain on it’s near side as further proof. The spin, energy, synchrotron radiation, elecromagnetic forces and micro instability created from this collision made earth act as a giant hydrogen fuel cell and created masses of water,salts and a living earth, evidenced by the earliest dated signs of life being – you guessed it – 3.9 billion years old. The hydrogen rose and burned off at the outer edge of the atmosphere due to oxygen formation and electricity. Life evolved intelligence, creating many humans along the way.
    Earth days are known to have once lasted only six hours .
    The moon is known to have once been at least twenty times closer to earth than it is now.
    If humans can see that life is created on a cellular scale from the replacement of the cell nucleus by new iron matter, altering the way the cell behaves, it is only a small step for us to see that this can happen on a much larger planetary scale.
    Well known and widely accepted theories about earth and moon creation are based on computer modelling from data that humans supplied and are anomalous and misleading.
    There is no great mystery about intelligent life. The mystery is why humans are not using their intelligence to work together more in adapting to climate change.

  • Adolfo Rios Pita Giurfa

    As expected. The same happends on earth, being the water cycle not closed but opened. During summer time above two poles and due to increased radiation, atmosphere´s oxygen is turn into Ozone (O3), which during winter time and specially when there are proton flares from the sun or increased cosmic rays, as during solar minimums, which are mainly composed (90%) of protons, which, we must remember are Hydrogen Nucleus, then these react with ozone to produce water (2H+…O3=H2O+O2), which in turn, through snow falling, also increase ice. So we have two ice cube making machines, a big one on the south pole and a smaller one on the artic.

  • Tanmay

    I was thinking, this query specially to “silly monkey (point 6)”, how CAN the hydrogen be collected from the solar wind? Is there any machine for it? Or a technique? And this query for “scribbler (point 7)”, what was the technique you suggested for snapping electrons with the hydrogen protons? I didn’t understand it, I found it very useful. Could you please elaborate?


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