Scientists have come up with the first water map of the moon. Researchers have found that water exists nearly everywhere on the lunar surface and not just in the Polar Regions as previously thought.

This research could come extremely useful for future moon explorations as scientists say we can already start thinking about possible methods that would allow us to extract the precious mineral, either as drinking water for future astronauts on the moon or as a necessary element to produce fuel.

The new research was published in the Journal Science Advances and builds on the discovery made in 2009 when experts detected water and a related molecule called hydroxyl, which is composed of one atom of both hydrogen and oxygen – in the lunar soil.

The map shows a general trend of increasing water content (purple, green and yellow) toward the poles. The dots mark the Apollo landing sites. Image Credit

With the help of NASA’s Moon Mineralogy Mapper, which flew aboard India’s Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft, scientists were able to calculate how much water was present on the surface of the moon.

Speaking about the discovery, lead author, Dr. Shuai Li, who performed the work while a Ph.D. student at Brown University and is now a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Hawaii said:

“The water signature is present nearly everywhere on the lunar surface, not limited to the Polar Regions as previously reported. We have discovered that the amount of water increases toward the lunar poles and does not show significant difference among distinct compositional terrains.”

Scientists say that water concentration reaches a maximum average ranging between 500 to 750 parts per million in higher lunar latitudes.

While this isn’t much—its in fact less than what’s found in the sands of Earth’s driest deserts—however, its still enough, and much more than previously calculated.

Water content map for Bullialdus crater exhibiting increased hydration in central peak, approaching values of ~250 ppm. Image Credit

Dr. Ralph Milliken, an associate professor at Brown and a co-author of the study

said: “What we have here is a roadmap to where water exists on the lunar surface. Now that we have these quantitative maps confirming where the water is and in what amounts, we can begin thinking about whether or not it could be worthwhile to extract, either as drinking water for astronauts or to produce fuel.”

Experts explain how the distribution of water across the lunar surface is most uniform and not as splotchy as some may have expected. The concentrations of water gradually decrease towards the lunar equator.

Scientists say that the way water is distributed across the lunar surface offers important details about its source.

Researchers say that despite the fact that most of the water mapped on the moon could be attributed to solar wind there were a few exceptions.

Astronomers discovered higher-than-average concentration of water inside of lunar volcanic deposits located in the vicinity of the moon’s equator, where background water in the soil is usually scarce.

Furthermore, experts note that rather than coming from the solar wind, water found in those deposits most likely originated from deep inside the moon, and made its way to the surface in lunar magma.

Scientists also noted that concentration of water on the moon changes of the course of the day at latitudes lower than 60 degrees.

There’s usually more water early in the day, and it becomes drier during later in the day. Experts note that these fluctuations can change as much as 200 parts per million, and experts cannot explain them yet.

“We don’t know exactly what the mechanism is for this fluctuation, but it tells us that the process of water formation in the lunar soil is active and happening today,” Dr. Milliken said.

“This raises the possibility that water on the moon may re-accumulate after extraction, but we need to understand better the physics of why and how this occurred in order to understand the timescale over which water may be renewed.”

Source: Water on the surface of the Moon as seen by the Moon Mineralogy Mapper: Distribution, abundance, and origins


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