Science

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ISRO/NASA/JPL-Caltech/USGS/Brown Univ.
These images show a very young lunar crater on the side of the moon that faces away from
Earth, as viewed by NASA's Moon Mineralogy Mapper. On the left is an image showing brightness
at shorter infrared wavelengths. On the right, the distribution of water-rich minerals (light blue)
is shown around a small crater.

Proof of Water on the Moon: What Does It Mean for the Future of Space Exploration?

September 25, 2009 02:00 PM
by Denis Cummings
Three separate spacecraft have found proof that the moon’s surface holds water molecules, a discovery that will likely encourage exploration of the moon and beyond.

Trace Amounts of Water Found on Moon’s Surface

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Three studies published Friday in the journal Science reveal that there is “unambiguous evidence” that water is present across the surface of the moon, disproving the long-held consensus that the majority of the moon’s surface is entirely dry.

There was no evidence that this was possible on such a broad scale,” said Peter Isaacson, a contributing author to one of the studies. “This discovery turns a lot of the conventional thinking about the lunar surface on its head.”

Three different spacecraft—India’s Chandrayaan-1, and NASA’s Cassini and Deep Impact—detected trace amounts of water molecules (H20) and hydroxyl (OH) while mapping the moon’s surface. Researchers estimated that 32 ounces of water can be found for every ton of the moon’s top layer, meaning that the moon is still drier than any desert on Earth.

When we say ‘water on the moon,’ we are not talking about lakes, oceans or even puddles,” said Carle Pieters of the Chandrayaan-1 team. “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.”

Analysis: What does discovery mean for space exploration?

The discovery of water will benefit space exploration in several ways. It provides a valuable resource for astronauts, aiding manned missions and perhaps the creation of a lunar base.

Hydrogen and oxygen molecules can also be used to generate fuel, allowing for the exploration of Mars and beyond. “Space ships use up to 85 per cent of their fuel getting to the Moon but this will allow the Moon to be a gas station in the sky,” said Larry Taylor, co-author of one of the studies. “This means missions will be able to load up on hydrogen and oxygen and the Moon can act as a stepping stone to other planets such as Mars.”

The discovery also provides an incentive for further space research. NASA has had difficulties receiving the funding it needs to reach its goals; the discovery of water may encourage the U.S. government to increase funding. Other national governments are also more likely to increase support for their space programs, especially in light of India’s success with the Chandrayaan-1.

“China has stepped up its space programme, with plans to put a taikonaut on the Moon by 2030,” reports The Times of London. “Russia and Japan estimate they may be ready to launch manned missions before then. All plan to establish their own bases.”

Background: Water on moon’s poles

Earlier this week, NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter found evidence that water ice may exist in deep craters on the moon’s north and south poles. Scientists have suspected that water could exist in these permanently shadowed areas, where water would not be immediately evaporated by the sun and sent into space.
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