Can you see a water molecule even if it’s right in in front of your face? Then how the heck can NASA see water molecules on the surface of the Moon using an orbiting satellite? That’s just one of the many questions answered in a new study published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, which reveals that not only have these water molecules been seen, they’ve been seen hopping around over the course of a lunar day. What have these NASA scientists been smoking?
“This is an important new result about lunar water, a hot topic as our nation’s space program returns to a focus on lunar exploration. We recently converted the LAMP’s light collection mode to measure reflected signals on the lunar dayside with more precision, allowing us to track more accurately where the water is and how much is present.”
In a NASA press release, Dr. Kurt Retherford, the principal investigator of the LAMP (Lyman Alpha Mapping Project far-ultraviolet (FUV) imaging spectrograph on the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), made sure everyone knew this was a big deal before explaining what they found. It’s already known that there is water frozen in the lunar soil. What LAMP saw as the time reached lunar noon was these water molecules being released and actually hopping or bouncing high enough to be captured by the Moon’s atmosphere. they then fall back to the surface as the temperature goes back down. While can’t see individual molecules, it can pick up light reflecting off of the lunar surface and identify them. It’s not really a rain, since the molecules don’t have much atmosphere to cling to before falling back down.
This new picture of lunar water also seems to confuse the issue of where the water actually comes from. It was assumed that it arrived via solar wind, which brought hydroxide molecules (an oxygen atom attached to a hydrogen atom) that eventually bound with another oxygen atom to form H2O. However, the water was also observed forming when the Earth was between the Moon and the Sun, thus blocking the solar wind.
So, will future lunar settlers act like those on Earth and built their bases on a river bank?
“These results aid in understanding the lunar water cycle and will ultimately help us learn about accessibility of water that can be used by humans in future missions to the Moon. Lunar water can potentially be used by humans to make fuel or to use for radiation shielding or thermal management; if these materials do not need to be launched from Earth, that makes these future missions more affordable.”
Amanda Hendrix, senior scientist at the Planetary Science Institute and lead author of the paper, bounced like lunar water around the obvious answer … there’s not enough water on the Moon to flow in a river, a stream, a water fountain or even a runny nose. However, there’s more than ‘none’ and that’s significant for low-level usages. And it’s not just at the poles as previously thought, so lunar settlers have more places to touch down and will need to pack slightly less water, leaving more room in their lunar luggage for socks, underwear and energy bars.
Can you ‘see’ the water molecules on the Moon now?
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