Water on the Moon… kinda

By Phil Plait | September 23, 2009 6:48 pm

[UPDATE (Sep. 24): The detections are real! I have the details in a followup post.]

Three separate spacecraft have apparently found the presence of water on the Moon… kinda. And by kinda, I mean it’s in very small amounts all over the surface, and that a lot of it is not comprised of a complete molecule of water, but is instead found as a hydroxyl molecule (OH-), a water molecule with a hydrogen atom stripped off.

Let me be clear: the amounts we’re talking about here are pretty small. However, scientists didn’t really expect to see any, so it’s a surprise. Also, the amounts fluctuate in rhythm with the lunar day, so it looks like the Sun has something to do with this – scientists speculate the hydrogen in the solar wind may be blasting the surface of the Moon, freeing oxygen from the rocks there and binding with it to form OH- and water.

Also, this is not the same as vast deposits of water that we’re still hoping to find locked up in permanently shadowed deep craters. This is spread out all over the Moon’s surface. I imagine it adds up to quite a lot of water, but it would be so thin that mining it from the surface would prove difficult.

You can read about this more at Universe Today. This news was embargoed and supposed to be released on Thursday, but for some reason the news veil was lifted early. I have not been able to find links to the scientific papers about this, nor any original sources — none of the blog or news entries I’ve seen about this link to the sources, and there is no word of this on the NASA, Cassini, Deep Impact, or Chandrayaan-1 websites (those last three are the spacecraft involved with the discovery).

So for now I am taking this news with a modicum of (dissolved) salt, until I hear the press conference tomorrow and get the info directly form the sources. But I’ll report on it then!

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, NASA, Science

Comments (35)

  1. I’m still celebrating. There’s now a small glimmer (droplet?) of hope for that lunar microbrewery I’m planning. Lunar Brew here I come!
    :)

  2. “The discoveries are being published Thursday on the Web site of the journal Science.” From an NYT article.

  3. Larry Z.

    What a coincidence! There was a geologist called Dr. Lawrence Taylor who went to our school to talk about building “gas stations” on the moon. After studying lunar dust, he (and other people) found ways to filter the dust out of air, build roads on the moon, and use the HHL and HHO already on the moon to create fuel for rockets. I couldn’t really understand all of it (I’m only 15), but I thought it was pretty interesting. At the end of the lecture, he proclaimed that water had already been found on the moon. He said he couldn’t reveal any details, but we should watch the NASA channel on 2pm this Thursday.

  4. Adam English

    How come we can’t smash hydrogen on the rocks then and create water? I have always wondered why we can’t take the three different elements and make water. Or why we can’t do the reverse and take pollutants and store them as solid waste in individual elements.

  5. Why would anything be on the Cassini website? I mean, it’s an awesome camera, but *that* awesome?

  6. RobJ

    @Carey – From the UT article:

    “…the Cassini spacecraft while on its way to Saturn, also flew by the Moon in 1999. Roger Clark, a U.S. Geological Survey spectroscopist on the M3 team, reanalyzed archival data from Cassini…”

  7. No papers visible yet, but there was a piece on this in Nature News on September 18th… way before the embargo was lifted.

    http://www.nature.com/news/2009/090918/full/news.2009.931.html

    (Subscription required to read the whole thing I’m afraid.)

    Science by press release. Gah.

  8. #5 Carey:

    (from a Yahoo News/AP story link above)

    Scientists also looked back at the records of NASA’s Cassini probe, which is circling Saturn. It has the same type instrument and whizzed by the moon ten years ago. Sure enough, it had found the same thing.

  9. Mena

    The small amounts of water weren’t found anywhere near the lunar landing sites, were they? Just sayin’…

  10. Is there any way to collect hydrogen from the protons in the solar wind? If you could somehow add an electron, you could generate hydrogen in-situ, then combust it with the oxygen obtained from lunar regolith, producing energy and water. Or maybe it would be easier to use solar energy to create hydrogen somehow.

  11. I'd rather be fishin'

    Lunar Brew? Not as tasty as Apollo Ale or as strong as Balmer’s Best Bitter or as satisfying as Lagrange Lager.

  12. Actually forget all about solar power and solar wind. A self-contained nuclear reactor on the moon would provide abundant power for obtaining oxygen and hydrogen.

  13. Travis

    Imagine how nuts Environmental groups would get if they knew about NASA planning to launch a full on nuclear reactor with the intention of landing it on the moon. They’d probably try storming the Cape.

  14. pontoppi

    …just wanted to point out that hydroxyl is neutral OH (a molecule and a radical – it has an unpaired electron, so it wants to become water). The anion OH- is sometimes called hydroxide. Anyway, In this context, I’m guessing they’re talking about neutral OH.

  15. Angus Prune

    Brown University seems to be the ones claiming responsibility for this

    http://news.brown.edu/pressreleases/2009/09/moonwater

  16. keith

    Oh (pun intended), the Hoaxers are going to love this. We can detect water molecules on the surface of the moon, but we can’t see the friggin’ landers? :-)

  17. Flying sardines

    @ 1. Ian O’Neill Says:

    I’m still celebrating. There’s now a small glimmer (droplet?) of hope for that lunar microbrewery I’m planning. Lunar Brew here I come!

    Now that gives moonshine a whole new meaning! :-)

    I look forward to sampling it!

    Great news. I’m a bit baffled by how Cassini comes into it though …

    @6. RobJ : Oh, okay. Thanks. :-)

    (Hmm… I really should read through all the comments before replying to the first one shouldn’t I?)

    @9. Mena Says:

    The small amounts of water weren’t found anywhere near the lunar landing sites, were they? Just sayin’…

    Well I know Buzz was the first to, ahem, pass water on our Moon but while Buzz leaked I’m pretty sure his suit didn’t! ;-)

    Besides if they were anything like my friends and family (& oh yeah, mea culpa like I bet most males.) then they probably wouldn’t have gone seeing as they were no trees to go behind! ;-)

    Seriously, I very much doubt the Lunar modules or any of our crashed probes /rockets could be responsible for this finding.

    @13 Travis : Just wait till someone dusts off those old NERVA nuclear rocket blyueprints and tries to get one running – or better yet Projects Orion & Daedalus see :

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project_Orion_(nuclear_propulsion)
    &
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project_Daedalus

  18. Small typo:

    “blasting the surface of the Mon, freeing “… Surface of the Mon? Moon perhaps?
    :)

  19. bala

    There is news that chandrayaan-1 has found evidance on existance of water on moon using the NASA Moon Mineralogy Mapper http://www.ptinews.com/news/297597_Chandrayaan-I-finds-water-on-moon

  20. The BBC reports the moon as ‘damp’. The word damp always has a bit of a gross feel to it, I think. I’m not sure damp has ever been used in a positive way.

  21. NASA press conference is today (Thu Sep 24) at 18:00 UTC (11 am PDT)

  22. Jens 'Spacejens' Rydholm

    “[...] blasting the surface of the Mons [...]”

    Fixed it for you, Mons was missing the S ;-)

  23. Marsh @ 18, it’s better than “moist”. Ewww.

    I’m thoroughly pumped about this. Scare the hydroxyl signature may be, but it’s still a HUGE bit of good news on the permenant base front. Please forgive my silliness gland acting up again in honour of this auspicious news:

    http://www.imaginetix.co.uk/Images/WetMoon.jpg

  24. gogblog

    I started seeing whiffs of this vaporous story early yesterday on a blog, and then others picked it up. That may be why NASA decided to lift the embargo.

    Just for the record, “comprised of a complete molecule of water” is incorrect. The right word is “composed.” The parts comprise the whole.

  25. Corey

    Phil…FYI. You’re banner ads are popping up an ad for the Templeton Foundation.

  26. 11. I’d rather be fishin’ Says:
    September 23rd, 2009 at 9:07 pm

    Lunar Brew? Not as tasty as Apollo Ale or as strong as Balmer’s Best Bitter or as satisfying as Lagrange Lager.
    ________________

    How do you drink Lagrange Lager? I’d think it would be perpetually just out of reach, gravitationally balanced between you and the bar…

    Or even worse would be L2 lager, which is always behind you.

  27. 21. Marsh Says:

    The BBC reports the moon as ‘damp’. The word damp always has a bit of a gross feel to it, I think. I’m not sure damp has ever been used in a positive way.

    As an adjective (damp basement, or worse yet damp attic) it tends to be generally negative.

    As a verb (to damp a fire) it tends more positive.

    J/P=?

  28. DrFlimmer

    a hydroxyl molecule (OH-), a water molecule with a hydrogen atom stripped off

    Technically, it is a hydrogen ion (a proton) that was stripped off, isn’t it?
    Otherwise the electron wouldn’t remain at the hydroxyl molecule. Then, OH would be neutral and not negatively charged.

  29. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

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

    Lunar Brew here I come!

    Doesn’t locals prefer moonshine?

    [Guess we others have to settle for rocket fuel until we get there.]

    Is there any way to collect hydrogen from the protons in the solar wind? If you could somehow add an electron, you could generate hydrogen in-situ,

    In sputtering electrons will jump or tunnel the material potential barrier to neutralize positive ions before they hit the target. This should apply even if the ions had to surmount any potential from net charges on the Moon before getting close to it.

    Thus it should be hydrogen atoms hitting the target.

    [Albeit likely reactive and certainly kinetically energetic such, ready to knock the hell out of what they hit, light weight though they are. Thus some hydroxyl and water.]

  30. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    DrFlimmer, I think that is confusing a hydroxyl molecule with a hydroxide (hydroxyl) ion:

    “Hydroxyl in chemistry stands for a molecule consisting of an oxygen atom and a hydrogen atom connected by a covalent bond (single bond). The neutral form is a hydroxyl radical and the hydroxyl anion is called a hydroxide. When the oxygen atom is linked to a larger molecule the hydroxyl group is a functional group (OH) . Hydroxide (HO¯ or ¯OH anion) is a polyatomic ion with a charge of negative one.” [Wikipedia]

  31. DrFlimmer

    Well, well. But who is confusing?
    I blame Phil (it is always the other one :D ), he was too fast with the minus sign! ;)

  32. water on the moon???? well., it’s nice. i hope that we can live there.

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