The top layer of the moon’s surface may hold far more water than previously thought, according to a new study.
The newly released study has found that water was most likely formed on the surface of the Moon by the constant stream of charged particles ejected from the Sun. The finding “represents an unanticipated, abundant reservoir” of water on the moon, according to researchers from three U.S. universities, who formally reported their results Sunday in the journal Nature Geoscience.
“That means you’ve got a lot of water stuck around in this glass that we never even thought too much about before,” says Dr. Lawrence Taylor, a University of Tennessee geochemist who advised Apollo astronauts gathering lunar samples and served as a member of the research team.
University of Michigan’s Youxue Zhang and colleagues at the University of Tennessee, and California Institute of Technology, say the sun’s solar winds create water through chemical reactions. Solar winds, which slam the solar system endlessly and is responsible for the auroras seen on planetary poles, is rich in hydrogen ions. These ions may combine with oxygen molecules on the moon’s surface, creating water, according to researchers.
Researchers announced the discovery after using infrared and mass spectrometry to analyze lunar samples from Apollo. The team found large amounts of hydroxyl inside aglutinate glass, which is a bonded hydrogen and oxygen atom. How the solar hydrogen combines with oxygen in the regolith grains to make the molecules is unclear.
The finding was surprising; for years astronomers have considered the moon a dry, barren wasteland that could present opportunities for mining, but not for those seeking a vast, untapped reservoir of water. However, since 2009, when NASA discovered water crystals in a deep crater near the Moon’s southern pole, evidence has suggested that the Moon was once a pretty wet place and may still have frozen water at depth.
While the study does not suggest a large amount of readily available water, it may be possible to mine water from the soil or to break up the molecules into their constituent oxygen and hydrogen atoms to create rocket fuel—potential requirements for a lunar base.
“With the cost of $25,000 for taking one pint [half a liter] of water to the moon, it is essential that we develop processes of producing water from the materials on the moon,” said Taylor.
The discovery could change how astronomers view the evolution of the solar system. Astronomers have spent the last several years searching for water on neighboring planets. NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover is currently preparing to search the surface of the Red Planet for signs of water. Recent findings suggest Mars once played host to large rivers and oceans, according to NASA scientists.