The moon’s shaded, free angles and hooks can hold frozen water in more places and in larger quantities than previously suspected. And for the first time, the presence of water on the moon’s sunlit surface has been confirmed, researchers reported on Monday.
This is good news for astronauts at future lunar bases who can use these resources to drink and make rocket fuel.
While previous observations have shown millions of tons of ice in the permanently shaded craters on the moon’s poles, a couple of studies in the journal Nature Astronomy take the availability of the moon’s surface water to a new level.
More than 15,400 square kilometers (40,000 square kilometers) of mountain terrain have the ability to capture water in the form of ice, according to a team led by University of Colorado Paul Hayne. That’s 20% more area than previous estimates, he said.
The presence of water in sunlit surfaces had previously been suggested but not confirmed. The molecules are so far apart that they are neither in liquid nor solid form, says lead researcher Casey Honniball, a postdoctoral fellow at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.
“To be clear, these are not pools of water,” she stressed at a news conference.
NASA’s astrophysics director Paul Hertz said it was too early to know if this water – which is found in and around the southern hemisphere’s sunlit Clavius crater – would be available. The surface can be harder there, destroying wheels and drills.
Recent findings, however, expand the potential landing sites for both robots and astronauts – “to open properties previously considered” off-limits “to be bone-dry,” Hayne said in an email to the Associated Press.
At present, NASA said it still aims to send astronauts to the moon’s south pole, especially rich in frozen water. The deadline for the White House is 2024.
As for the shaded areas that are believed to be full of frozen water near the moon’s north and south poles, temperatures are so low that they can hold on to the water for millions or even billions of years. These so-called cold traps come down to minus 261 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 163 degrees Celsius).
Using data from NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, the scientists identified cold traps as small as a few meters (meters) above and as wide as 18 miles (30 kilometers) and more, and used computer models to get all the way down to micrometers in size.
“Because the little ones are too small to see from orbit, even though they are many more, we can not yet identify ice inside them,” Hayne said. “Once we’re on the surface, we’ll do that experiment.”
For the second study, scientists used NASA’s airborne infrared observatory Sofia to definitively identify water molecules on sunlit parts of the moon just outside the polar regions. Most of these molecules are likely to be stored in the cavities between lunar dust and other particles or embedded in the glassy residue of micrometeorite shock. In this way, the molecules can withstand the moon’s harsh environment, researchers said.
By flying 18,000 meters above the earth, the Sofia plane is above the water vapor that can interfere with infrared observations.
At the moment, Sofia can only analyze the outer surface of the moon, but these water molecules can be buried meters (depth), Honniball stated. By comparison, the Sahara desert has 100 times the amount of water that Sofia discovered in lunar soil.
Scientists believe that all this water on the moon comes from comets, asteroids, interplanetary dust, the solar wind or even volcanic eruptions in the moon. They get a better idea of the sources “if we can get down to the surface and analyze ice samples,” Hayne said.
Jason Bleacher, chief researcher at NASA’s human exploration and operations office, said that at some point, decisions will have to be made about lunar technology. Will it be easier to survive the extremely cold polar environments and use water in deep shaded craters, he asked, or to dig in the moon at the milder middle latitudes in search of water.
“I can really imagine how robots can be beneficial in all of these,” Bleacher said.
NASA plans to launch a water-seeking rover named Viper to the moon’s south pole by the end of 2022. The astronauts would follow in a series of missions designed to set up long-term bases. The Swedish Space Agency wants its new Artemis lunar landing program to be sustainable, unlike the Apollo program half a century ago.
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