New evidence of the presence of water on the Moon

Ancient volcanic deposits on the Moon (Image courtesy Milliken lab / Brown University)
Ancient volcanic deposits on the Moon (Image courtesy Milliken lab / Brown University)

An article published in the journal “Nature Geoscience” describes a research that provides evidence of the existence of large amounts of water in ancient volcanic deposits on the Moon. Ralph E. Milliken and Shuai Li of Brown University used data collected by the Chandrayaan-1 space probe’s Moon Mineralogy Mapper Spectrometer to locate the water, perhaps formed after the collision between a planet and the primordial Earth that led to the Moon’s formation.

Until the last decade there were no data that suggested the presence of water on the Moon but things are changing rapidly. The first results came at Brown University from a study by geologist Alberto Saal of volcanic glass beads carried to the Earth during the Apollo 15 and 17 missions. This study found traces of water inside some beads and a second study of the tiny crystalline formations inside them carried out in 2011 revealed that the water content is similar to that found in some basalt on Earth.

The doubt raised by that study was whether those beads were normal or the exception. Meanwhile, in 2009, NASA announced that its Lunar CRater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) space probe detected the presence of water in the Cabeus crater region near the Moon’s South pole. However, the possible widespread presence of water under the lunar surface is quite different.

The thermal analyzes from the Indian Chandrayaan-1 space probe were conducted on a large scale on the pyroclastic deposits of ancient magmatic materials. The results indicate a uniform distribution of water-rich deposits, visible in yellow and red in the image. The analyzes concern deposits close to the surface but this may also be true for the lunar mantle.

Somehow water survived under the lunar surface or was brought there by asteroids or comets before the Moon solidified completely in the early stages of its life. The origin of this water is a mystery and will have to be investigated, also using new studies that will surely be carried out.

The water content of the beads is very low, around 0.05% of their weight, but the deposits are vast and that water could be extracted. These deposits could be reached more easily than those found by the LCROSS space probe. If water could be extracted it would be a major step forward in any project involving a lunar base with a human staff. Of course, that’s not an easy task since water is to be separated from the other compounds contained in the beads.

Possible space missions projects aside, the fact that there’s water on the Moon and perhaps in large amounts is very interesting and important. In fact, the collected data must be considered in the models that seek to explain the Moon’s formation, closely related to that of the Earth.

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