After years of searching, NASA has found
evidence of liquid water on the Moon. Two separate studies have been published in recent days, with water found deep in polar craters and predicted in polar "cold traps". While scientists have long suspected there to be water on the Moon, it is now almost certain and possibly much more widespread than previously thought. These new findings have a number of positive implications or the future of lunar exploration, with water possibly useful for resource extraction and rocket fuel among other applications.
The first study was carried out by NASA’s
Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA). They confirmed water
on the sunlit surface of the Moon, with this discovery possibly indicating
water distribution across the entire lunar surface. Led by Casey Honniball from
NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, SOFIA found the signature of water either
trapped in glass or between grains of sand. The study detected water molecules
on the Moon's southern hemisphere in a location known as Clavius Crater, which
is one of the largest craters visible from Earth.
According to Dr Honniball, "For the
first time we have unambiguously detected molecular water on the sunlit Moon...
Prior to this it was believed water could not survive on the sunlit Moon... Our
detection shows that water may be more widespread on the surface of the Moon
than previously thought and not constrained to only the poles." According
to Paul Hertz, director of the Astrophysics Division in the Science Mission
Directorate at NASA, “Now we know it is there. This discovery challenges our
understanding of the lunar surface and raises intriguing questions about
resources relevant for deep space exploration.”
The second paper used new theoretical
models, based on temperature data and high resolution images, to refine
predictions of where water molecules might occur. Along with cold traps found
in permanently shadowed areas near the poles, there could be additional small
cold traps where conditions permit water ice to accumulate. The team calculates
that 0.1% of the total lunar surface is cold enough to trap water as ice, on a
scale of centimetres or decimetres. The vast majority of these icy cold traps
are likely to be found at high latitudes near the lunar south pole, with this
information highly useful in narrowing down future landing sites.
Both of these discoveries strengthened data
from 2018 uncovered by India's Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft, which revealed tiny
patches of exposed ice in some of the same shadowy craters. Water represents an
important resource that can be used for life-support, air supply, resource
extraction, and even fuel. Water could be used in simple chemical reactions to
extract useful resources from the soil, and also used as rocket fuel in the
form of liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. With water, the Moon has greater
potential to become a refuelling base, with lower gravity and lack of
atmosphere providing the perfect launchpad for the rest of the Solar System.