A new, water-logged history of the Moon

May 31, 2016 by Marlowe Hood
Astronaut Harrison Schmitt collects lunar rake samples at the Taurus-Littrow landing site on the moon during the Apollo 17 mission in this December 11, 1972

After the Apollo missions scooped up rocks from the Moon's surface and brought them home, scientists were convinced for decades that they had proof our nearest celestial neighbour was drier than a bone.

How wrong they were.

New technology detected water in those dusty samples nearly a decade ago, and a new study, published Wednesday, tells us how and when that water—lots and lots of it—likely wound up on the Moon.

In a word, asteroids.

After the Moon was born of a collision between Earth and a Mars-sized planet some 4.5 billion years ago, it was bombarded with water-rich asteroids known as for tens of millions of years, perhaps longer.

So was Earth, which is one reason the findings, published in Nature Communications, are of more than academic interest.

"The Moon can be viewed as a giant time capsule, preserving a record of the impact history of Earth and Moon since their formation," explained lead author Jessica Barnes, a researcher at The Open University in southern England.

On our on planet, that record has been largely erased by tectonic plates moving continents like pieces on a board game.

Giant ball of magma

Even if scientists today are sure there is water trapped on the Moon, they do not know how much, said co-author Roman Tartese, a researcher at the Minerology Institute of France's National Museum for Natural History.

"If we extrapolate from the Apollo samples, the could contain on the order of 1,000 trillion tonnes," he told AFP.

If there is that much, it will likely be locked inside minerals in the form of hydroxyl (OH) molecules, he added.

On the surface, up to a billion tonnes of frozen water—enough to fill a million Olympic pools—is probably lodged inside deep craters around the north and south lunar poles, where the Sun's rays never penetrate.

Recent research concluded that it "has been trapped there for three or four billion years," Tartese said by email.

Water on the Moon could have very practical implications.

If future scientific missions can extract oxygen from these molecules, astronauts could live—and breath—inside bases on the lunar surface.

And the hydrogen, once separated from the oxygen, could be used as fuel for rockets or space-based mining operations.

"This may seem like science fiction," Tartese said.

"But it is one of the reasons several space agencies—including the European Space Agency and NASA—are currently developing robotic missions to explore new regions to better estimate the quantity of ice."

It is also possible, the researchers said, that some of the water on the may have been ejected by volcanic eruptions, bubbling up from what was once a molten interior.

The Moon, in fact, probably began as "an enormous ball of magma" progressively cooled and hardened, said Tartese.

Explore further: Water on the moon?

More information: Nature Communications, nature.com/articles/doi:10.1038/ncomms11684

Related Stories

Water on the moon?

May 30, 2016

Prior to the Apollo missions to the moon, scientists speculated that volatiles - including water - may have accumulated in permanently shaded regions at the poles. Then the Apollo era brought the return of lunar samples, ...

A wet Moon

March 26, 2014

The Moon's status as a "dry" rock in space has long been questioned. Competing theories abound as to the source of the H20 in the lunar soil, including delivery of water to the Moon by comets.

Water hidden in the Moon may have proto-Earth origin

September 10, 2013

Water found in ancient Moon rocks might have actually originated from the proto-Earth and even survived the Moon-forming event. Latest research into the amount of water within lunar rocks returned during the Apollo missions ...

Digging deep in search of water on the moon

May 19, 2014

One of the main aims of the Apollo missions of the 1960s was to determine whether the moon had any water on it. If man were to build a colony on the moon, having water present would make living there easier.

Recommended for you

In the Tree of Life, youth has its advantages

March 26, 2019

It's a question that has captivated naturalists for centuries: Why have some groups of organisms enjoyed incredibly diversity—like fish, birds, insects—while others have contained only a few species—like humans.

Can China keep it's climate promises?

March 26, 2019

China can easily meet its Paris climate pledge to peak its greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, but sourcing 20 percent of its energy needs from renewables and nuclear power by that date may be considerably harder, researchers ...

Cellular microRNA detection with miRacles

March 26, 2019

MicroRNAs (miRNAs) are short noncoding regulatory RNAs that can repress gene expression post-transcriptionally and are therefore increasingly used as biomarkers of disease. Detecting miRNAs can be arduous and expensive as ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

5 / 5 (1) May 31, 2016
Why would we use the hydrogen for rocket fuel when we know that chemical rockets are the least efficient, slowest, and by far the most expensive way to get around even in our own system. Especially when we know that the moon abounds in Helium-3, FUSION fuel ! ! Oxygen we need to breathe. Hydrogen we can use for electric fuel cells for moon cars and trucks for mining the He-3. Water for our use and for raising crops hydroponically. Get lunar materials from the tailings from burrowing into and under the lunar surface for living spaces free of radiation, excess sunlight. Other byproducts for sealing our constructed 'man and woman caves' for our living and working spaces so that our precious manufactured air does not leak out.
1 / 5 (4) Jun 01, 2016
"This may seem like science fiction," Tartese said."

In subsequent articles I expect that will be in the seas on the moon bathe aliens.
A typical article where of molecules, make a herd of elephants.
Mark Thomas
1 / 5 (1) Jun 01, 2016
Osiris1, that day may come eventually, but we are far from ready at this point. Producing the requisite conditions for fusion with deuterium and helium-3 is considerably more difficult than fusion with deuterium and tritium, which is also far from ready for prime time. I understand that the other thing to consider is side reactions between two deuterium atoms will prevent this from being a perfect fusion fuel, although I like the idea of generating power directly from the loose proton, which would make an interesting rocket engine as well.
not rated yet Jun 01, 2016
You could use a more dirty fusion and just sort of point the radiation into space and vent the waste heat into vacuum. There's already considerably worse coming in from space in the form of cosmic radiation.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.