Nasa uncovers hidden water on the moon that could be crucial for future missions

26 October 2020, 16:08 | Updated: 26 October 2020, 19:04

Nick Hardinges

By Nick Hardinges

Nasa has uncovered hidden pockets of frozen water on the moon for the first time that could have potential implications for future lunar missions.

The presence of water on the sunlit surface of the moon is crucial for understanding our nearest celestial neighbour and could help astronauts in future deep-space missions.

Nasa's Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (Sofia) has detected water molecules (H2O) in a crater - large enough to be visible from Earth - located on the Moon's southern hemisphere.

Paul Hertz, director of the astrophysics division in the science mission directorate at Nasa headquarters in Washington, said: "We had indications that H2O - the familiar water we know - might be present on the sunlit side of the moon.

"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."

He added: "We don’t know yet if we can use it as a resource, but learning about water on the Moon is key for our #Artemis exploration plans."

However, Professor Hal Sosabowski, Professor of Public Understanding of Science at the University of Brighton, told LBC that although the discovery was "exciting, it's not that exciting" for our chances of finding extraterrestrial life.

"In order to have carbon-based life, you need liquid water," he said.

"In fact, just because you have liquid water, you don't necessarily have life. And as this is frozen water it is not enough for life."

Previous observations of the Moon's surface detected some form of hydrogen but were unable to distinguish whether it was water or its close chemical relative, hydroxyl (OH).

The researchers found water in concentrations of 100 to 412 parts per million - roughly equivalent to a 12-ounce bottle of water - trapped in a cubic metre of soil spread across the lunar surface.

As a comparison, the Sahara desert has 100 times the amount of water than what Sofia detected in the lunar soil.

Nasa says that despite the small amounts, the discovery raises new questions about how water is created and how it persists on the harsh, airless lunar surface.

Casey Honniball, the lead author who published the results from her graduate thesis work at the University of Hawaii at Manoa in Honolulu, said: "Prior to the Sofia observations, we knew there was some kind of hydration.

"But we didn't know how much, if any, was actually water molecules - like we drink every day - or something more like drain cleaner."

Other researchers suggest that in some cases tiny patches of ice might exist in permanent shadows no bigger than a penny.

They explored phenomena on the moon called cold traps, which are shadowy regions of the surface that exist in a state of eternal darkness.

It is thought that many have gone without a single ray of sunlight for potentially billions of years.

Now scientists say there may be a lot more of these nooks and crannies than previous data suggests.

Paul Hayne, assistant professor in the laboratory of atmospheric and space physics at University of Colorado Boulder, said: "If you can imagine standing on the surface of the moon near one of its poles, you would see shadows all over the place.

"Many of those tiny shadows could be full of ice."

Micro cold 'water traps' on the moon could be more prevalent than first thought
Micro cold 'water traps' on the moon could be more prevalent than first thought. Picture: PA

Drawing on detailed data from Nasa's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, the researchers estimate the moon could harbour roughly 15,000 square miles of permanent shadows in various shapes and sizes.

According to scientists, these might be reservoirs capable of preserving water via ice.

Prof Hayne added: "If we're right, water is going to be more accessible for drinking water, for rocket fuel, everything that Nasa needs water for."

Previous research has reported signs of hydration on the lunar surface, particularly around the south pole.

However, these detections are based on a spectral signature, at three micrometres, that cannot discriminate between water and hydroxyl (oxygen bonded to hydrogen) bound in minerals.

In one of two papers published in Nature Astronomy, Casey Honniball, from the University of Hawaii, and colleagues analysed data from the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) airborne telescope that observed the moon at six micrometres.

At this wavelength, they were able to detect a spectral signature of water that is not shared with other hydroxyl compounds.

They found water is present at high southern latitudes.

The authors suggest the detected water is probably stored in glass or between grains on the lunar surface that protect it from the harsh environment.

In the other study, Prof Hayne assessed a whole range of possible sizes for cold traps, down to one centimetre in diameter.

The team found that small-scale micro cold traps - some just 1cm wide - are hundreds to thousands of times more numerous than larger cold traps, and they can be found at both poles.

The authors suggest that approximately 40,000 square km of the lunar surface has the capacity to trap water.

Researchers say the findings indicate water is efficiently produced or delivered on the moon by various processes and is likely to be stored in the moon's cold traps at both polar regions.

The team pulled data from real-life observations of the moon, then used mathematical tools to recreate what its surface might look like at a very small scale.

They say it is a bit like a golf ball.

However, the researchers caution that they cannot prove these shadows actually hold pockets of ice, and the only way to do that would be to go there in person or with rovers and dig.

But they say the results are promising, and future missions could shed even more light on the moon's water resources.

Prof Hayne said: "Astronauts may not need to go into these deep, dark shadows.

"They could walk around and find one that's a metre wide and that might be just as likely to harbour ice."