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The Four Flavors of Lunar Water

The Moon is constantly bombarded by the solid debris of the Solar System.

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Earth over the north pole of the Moon as seen from Clementine, 1994


The Moon is constantly bombarded by the solid debris of the Solar System. Comets, asteroids and interplanetary dust, all containing varying amounts of water, have pounded the lunar surface for billions of years. Yet until recently, the Moon was considered to be barren and bone-dry. Rock and soil samples returned by the Apollo missions lacked any hydrous mineral phases or water-bearing weathering products. Since water is not stable on the Moon under ordinary conditions, what happens to it?

New studies of lunar samples, along with results from several missions in recent years, have given us a revolutionary new picture of water on the Moon. Study of volcanic glass from the Apollo 15 landing site in 2008 demonstrated that tiny amounts of water (about 50 parts per million) are present in the interiors of these glasses, suggesting that the lunar mantle (whence they came) contains about ten times this amount. This was a startling result, considering the extreme dryness of other lunar samples.

Because the Moon’s spin axis is nearly perpendicular (1.5° from vertical) to the ecliptic plane, the Sun is always on the horizon at the poles, keeping the floors of deep craters in permanent shadow. These dark areas only receive heat from the interior of the Moon and are extremely cold; recent measurements by the DIVINER instrument on the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) spacecraft indicate temperatures as cold as 25-35° C above absolute zero. Water molecules are trapped by the cold as soon as they find their way into these craters. Over the more than 4.5 billion years of lunar history, significant amounts of water could accumulate in many of these crater “cold traps” at the Moon’s poles.

The first hint of water ice in these polar cold traps came from a radio experiment aboard the 1994 Clementine mapping mission orbiting the Moon. The polarization characteristics of echoes from the south pole were consistent with the presence of ice in the crater Shackleton. Four years later, the Lunar Prospector (LP) spacecraft carried an instrument designed to measure the amount and energy of neutrons given off the Moon’s surface. Hydrogen absorbs neutrons, so when LP investigators saw a decrease in the flux of medium-energy neutrons near the lunar poles, they concluded that excess amounts of hydrogen were present there. Although this observation is consistent with the presence of polar ice, neutron data alone do not tell us what form the hydrogen is in, and it was alternatively postulated that this enhancement was caused by excess solar wind hydrogen.

The Moon Mineralogy Mapper (M3) instrument on the 2008-09 Indian Chandrayaan-1 mission collected reflectance spectra for most of the Moon. It found both water (H2O) and hydroxyl (OH) molecules, present either as a monolayer on lunar dust grains or bound into the mineral structures in surface materials, poleward of about 65° latitude at both poles. Moreover, the abundance of this surface water varies with time, being present in greater quantity in both local early morning and late evening and it increases in abundance with increasing latitude. These results were verified by observations from the Cassini and EPOXI spacecraft during separate flybys of the Moon. The new observations indicate significant quantities of water moving towards areas with lower mean surface temperatures and increasing in abundance with latitude. Taken all together, the results mean that water is being deposited (e.g., by comet impact) and/or created (e.g., by reduction of metal oxides in the surface by solar wind protons) and then transported to the poles. By this process, significant quantities of water ice could accumulate at the poles over geological time.

Last October, the companion satellite to LRO, LCROSS, slammed the upper stage of its launch vehicle into the Moon’s south pole and observed the ejected material. Results show that both water vapor and ice particles were ejected from the LCROSS impact crater; initial analyses indicate that water is present at about the 5-10 wt.% level. The LCROSS impact site exhibits no anomalous radar behavior, suggesting that such an amount of water ice cannot be detected by radar. However, the results do indicate that significant amounts of lunar polar water may be present even in the absence of specific radar evidence for it. Spectra from this impact event show evidence for other volatile substances, including ammonia and simple carbon compounds. The presence of such material may indicate a cometary source for these volatile materials.

Both poles were covered by radar images from the Mini-SAR instrument on Chandrayaan-1. Much of the north polar region displays backscattering properties typical for the ordinary Moon, but one group of craters in the region show elevated polarization enhancements in their interiors, but not in deposits exterior to their rims. Almost all of these anomalous craters are in permanent sun shadow and correlate with proposed locations of ice modeled on the basis of the Lunar Prospector neutron data. These relations suggest that the interiors of these craters contain nearly pure water ice, with approximately 600 million metric tonnes of ice present in over 40 small craters within 10 degrees of the pole. The south polar region shows similar relations, except that it has fewer anomalous craters than the north pole. Small areas of polarization enhancement are found in some craters, notably Shoemaker, Haworth and Faustini; these areas might be deposits of water ice.

So water on the Moon is present in large quantity in at least four different “flavors.” Water was in the deep lunar interior 3.3 billion years ago, at concentration levels of a few hundred parts per million. This water would have been released during the eruption of lunar magma and could have made its way into the polar cold traps. Water is either being made or being deposited nearly continuously by impact all over the Moon. Most of this water is subsequently lost to space (e.g., by sputtering, ionization or thermal escape) but some is retained on the Moon. Any water arriving at a cold trap near the pole will be captured. Water, once in the polar areas, is stable as ice in the permanent darkness or where sublimation is prevented when buried by a thin layer of soil. Significant quantities of water may accumulate there; the LCROSS results suggest several to tens of weight percent water ice may exist in the polar soils. Finally, some of this migrating water apparently collects at rates high enough so that significant soil cannot mix with it during normal impact bombardment, as shown by the presence of relatively “pure” water ice deposits in selected lunar craters imaged by radar.

A significant amount of water at the poles of the Moon is present, with many billions of metric tonnes at each pole (detailed estimates of the water reserves are in progress). Such an amount is more than enough to support both permanent, sustainable human presence on the Moon and for export to cislunar space. Water is useful as rocket fuel and energy storage (hydrogen and oxygen are the two most powerful chemical propellants known) and for life support (water and oxygen) in space. These new discoveries fundamentally alter our understanding of the Moon’s processes and history and highlight both it’s scientific value and utilization potential. The Moon is on the critical path to human expansion into the Solar System.

Addendum. In the comments below, reader Pradeep Mohandas reminds me about the findings of the Moon Impact Probe, released from Chandrayaan-1, which discovered water vapor in very small concentrations in the space just above the Moon during its descent to the south pole.  This exospheric water (i.e., water in extremely small concentrations) may be related to the time-variable water seen in the spectral data from M3, Cassini, and EPOXI -- in other words, it may represent water molecules in motion, migrating toward the poles.  Work on the nature and processes of the lunar hydrosphere continues and I will keep you up to date on the latest research results on this new and exciting subtopic of lunar science.
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About Paul D. Spudis
Paul D. Spudis

Paul D. Spudis is a senior staff scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, Texas. His website can be found at www.spudislunarresources.com. The opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect the views of the Smithsonian Institution or his employer.

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