Tiny pockets of ice on the moon could provide enough drinking water, oxygen and rocket fuel to support a lunar colony, Nasa scientists claim
- Scientists have found the unique molecular signature for water on the moon
- Proves that water, likely as ice and trapped in glass, exists on the lunar surface
- Study estimates up to 40,000 square km of water hidden in cold traps in craters
NASA has today confirmed that there is up to 15,000 square miles (40,000 square km) of frozen water on the moon.
Previously, researchers had speculated that water was present on the lunar surface thanks to encouraging, but not conclusive, evidence.
Now, two studies published in Nature Astronomy show that this preliminary data was not a red herring and there is indeed water on the moon and it can likely be found in so-called ‘cold traps’, craters at the moon’s poles that are always in shadow.
The discovery means future missions to the moon’s surface could be prolonged by making use of these pockets of frozen water, which is likely trapped in glass.
Astronauts could access the natural resource, which is thought to have arrived via colliding comets and asteroids, and turn it into drinking water to sustain a colony.
Scientists also say the water could be used to make rocket fuel which will slash mission costs and make interplanetary space travel easier and cheaper.
NASA has today announced that there is up to 15,000 square miles of frozen water on the moon
The NASA-backed research used a converted Boeing 747 that cruises around Earth above the clouds at an altitude of around 41,000ft called Sofia
The NASA-backed research used a converted Boeing 747 that cruises around Earth above the clouds at an altitude of around 41,000ft called Sofia.
It was tasked with clarifying findings published in 2009 and which discovered molecular hydrogen and oxygen on the surface of the moon.
However, due to the nature of the decade-old analysis, astronomers were unable to say whether or not it was water (H20) or hydroxyl minerals.
Dr Nick Tothill, a physicist at Western Sydney University, who was not involved in the research, said: ‘The problem was that the water ice signature that was found before was really just telling us that there were oxygen and hydrogen atoms bound together.
‘On the Earth, this is mainly water, but on the Moon, you can’t be so sure.’
The issue was a limitation of the equipment that used a wavelength of three micrometres, which is unable to tell apart hydroxyl minerals from water.
Sofia, short for Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, is equipped with a six micrometre sensor that can distinguish between the two.
Dr Themiya Nanayakkara, an astronomer at Swinburne University of Technology, comments on the research.
In the paper, the researchers, led by Dr Casey Honniball from the University of Hawaiʻi, say that water around the south pole of the moon is relatively abundant, at around 100 to 400 parts per million
First ever space ‘petrol station’ will be built in the UK and orbit the Moon
The first ever space ‘petrol station’ will be built in the UK as part of a project to support upcoming NASA missions to the Moon.
Aerospace manufacturer Thales Alenia Space will construct the chemical refuelling station, which will be launched into space in 2027, at its three UK sites – in Bristol, Belfast and Oxfordshire.
The station will refuel the Lunar Gateway – a space station that will orbit the Moon and serve as a communication hub and science laboratory – with xenon and other chemical propellants.
The petrol station will be launched full of propellant to refuel the Lunar Gateway’s orbit control systems.
When the petrol station runs out of fuel, space tankers, launched from Earth, will replenish the station’s tanks.
Each refilling of the tanks will allow enough fuel to keep the station orbiting the moon for several years, according to the UK Space Agency.
‘Honniball and collaborators have now targeted a much higher wavelength feature at 6µm using data from the SOFIA observatory,’ he says.
He goes on to explain that Sofia is a modified Boeing 747 with a massive hole that fits in a 2.5-meter mirror.
‘They find spectral signatures that can only be explained by molecular water on the Moon,’ he says.
In the paper, the researchers, led by Dr Casey Honniball from the University of Hawaiʻi, say that water around the south pole of the moon is relatively abundant, at around 100 to 400 parts per million.
They also say the water ice is likely stored in a form of glass or between grains which protects it from the harsh conditions on the lunar surface.
‘We haven’t found a fountain or lake on the moon, the water density is very low, it is confined to the poles, and is likely trapped in glasses or rocks on the surface,’ warns Dr Ben Montet from the University of New South Wales.
The second scientific paper released today looks at where this water is most likely to be found on the moon’s surface.
It adds to previous research which said that cold traps are well suited for preserving the water ice.
Also known as topographic depressions, they benefit from a quirk of the moon’s physics, which is also a feature of Mercury and the asteroid Ceres.
All three are tilted on their axis and as a result the shadow created from their craters leaves some areas permanently in the shade.
In these areas, temperatures can plummet as low as -163.15°C/-261.67°F due to the lack of sunlight, hence the frigid moniker assigned by astronomers.
future missions to the south pole of the moon could be refuelled at a base camp, as proposed by the NASA Artemis mission, using the moonwater. Pictured, NASA impression of Artemis astronauts on the surface of Moon
Dr Paul Hayne from the University of Colorado, Boulder led a project that tried to determine just how many of these there are and how much water they may contain.
His team used theoretical modelling and data from the Lunar Renaissance Orbiter (LRO) to piece this puzzle together.
They vary enormously in size, the researchers say, with some as large as one kilometre in diameter and some just one centimetre in width.
Up to a fifth of all water ice believed to be trapped in these spots is thought to be in the tiniest of the craters, the researchers say.
More than half (60 per cent) of the cold traps are in the south and the majority are at latitudes in excess of 80 degrees because ‘permanent shadows equatorward of 80° are typically too warm to support ice accumulation, the researchers write.
In total, they speculate up to 40,000 square kilometres of water ice exists in the cold traps, the same as twice the contents of Lake Ontario.
Dr Tothill says: ‘Taken together, these papers tell us that there really is water ice on the moon, and it’s probably widespread over both polar regions – with a bit more in the south.
Tardigrades were left on the MOON by Israel’s Beresheet probe crash
Tardigrades are regraded as Earth’s hardiest animal and can withstand the most brutal conditions known to man – and now thousands of them are the moon.
Experts say it is impossible to know if the durable animals — often dubbed ‘moss piglets’ or ‘water bears’ — will be able to withstand the barren landscape and harsh conditions of the lunar surface.
Israel’s Beresheet mission hoped to send a host of scientific instruments to the lunar surface and alongside them, safely packed away, was a treasure trove of information and a smattering of the ‘water bears’.
They formed part of the ‘Lunar Library’ project masterminded by serial entrepreneur Nova Spivack.
It hoped to use the Beresheet mission as the first step towards creating a ‘Earth back-up’ composed of all of mankind’s knowledge.
As part of this quest, Spivack sent human DNA, 30 million pages of information and a host of tardigrades along on the doomed craft.
‘This in turn tells us how and where to look for water on the moon, with either robot or human explorers.’
While this research confirms long-held theories, astronomers have been acting on these suspicions for a long time.
NASA, for example, a banked on finding water and plans to build a base camp at the moon’s south pole. Israel’s failed Beresheet lander also had a similar thought process behind it.
Before its crash landing, it had intended to touch down in the lowland area of Mare Serenitatis. This area gave off a distinct signal indicating water is present there.
Thousands of dried tardigrades were secretly sent on this mission and these creatures are known as being the hardiest creatures in the world.
They can be revived by water, survive UV rays and Israel hoped to see if they would survive on the moon.
‘But we don’t have to worry that tardigrades are now running around the Moon,’ says Alice Gorman of Flinders University, a leading space archaeologist.
‘They’re encased in resin, and the water is most likely trapped inside glasses formed by micrometeorite impacts.’
The discovery, which was tantalisingly teased by NASA last week, has significant implications for future space missions to our natural satellite.
Dr Jonti Horner from the University of Southern Queensland calls the research ‘definitely exciting’.
He says future missions to the south pole of the moon could be refuelled at a base camp, as proposed by the NASA Artemis mission, using the moonwater.
But the implications are far more significant than that, experts say.
Instead of simply refuelling and returning to Earth, the presence of moonwater , and therefore lower costs for return trips, also open the door for interplanetary missions.
‘To launch a litre bottle of water from Earth to the Moon costs $35,000 – almost the same cost as if we just made that bottle solid gold, says Professor Alan Duffy, lead scientist of The Royal Institution of Australia.
‘But by accessing it directly from the Moon itself we turn our celestial neighbour into a resupply as well as a refuelling station.
‘Water can directly support astronauts on a planned Moon-base, used to grow food on long-duration missions to Mars, and even split into literal rocket fuel for powering our satellites and rockets across the Solar System. ‘