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NASA’s lunar orbiter spots water molecules on Moon

NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft has observed water molecules moving around the dayside of Moon, a finding that could help scientists learn about the accessibility of water that can be used by humans in future lunar missions.

Mar 12, 2019 16:40 IST
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NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) spacecraft has observed water molecules moving around the dayside of Moon, a finding that could help scientists learn about the accessibility of water that can be used by humans in future lunar missions.

According to a study published in the journal - Geophysical Research Letters- the measurements from the Lyman Alpha Mapping Project (LAMP), an instrument aboard the LRO, of the sparse layer of molecules temporarily stuck to the surface helped characterise lunar hydration changes over the course of a day.

Study: Key Highlights

As per NASA, scientists have identified surface water in sparse populations of molecules bound to the lunar soil, or regolith. The water molecules reportedly remain tightly bound to the regolith until surface temperatures peak near lunar noon.

The amount and locations vary based on the time of the day. This water is more common at higher latitudes and tends to hop around as the surface heats up.

The water 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.

The latest research revealed the amount of energy needed to remove water molecules from lunar materials, helping scientists understand how water is bound to surface materials.

Due to the complex way light reflects off the surface of the Moon, lunar hydration is tricky to measure from orbit.

The previous research reported quantities of hopping water molecules that were too large to explain with known physical processes.

Scientists have hypothesised that hydrogen ions in the solar wind may be the source of most of the Moon's surface water.

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.

Benefits

Lunar water can potentially be used by astronauts to make fuel or to use for radiation shielding or thermal management.

If these materials would not need to be launched from Earth, it would make future missions more affordable.

Significance

According to LRO deputy project scientist John Keller, the study is an important step in advancing the water story on the Moon and is a result of years of accumulated data from the LRO mission.

The current results help in understanding the lunar water cycle and will ultimately help the scientists learn about accessibility of water that can be used by humans in future missions to the Moon.

Background

Up until the last decade, scientists thought the Moon was arid, with any water existing mainly as pockets of ice in permanently shaded craters near the poles.

Scientists have previously conducted extensive experiments with water and lunar samples collected by the Apollo missions.

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