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26 Nov 2020 5:07
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  •   Home > News > International

    Five quick questions answered about finding water on the Moon

    We've answered five quick questions about how excited we should be about the discovery of water on the Moon and what happens next.

    A team of scientists has detected water on the sunlit part of the Moon using NASA's flying telescope.

    Meanwhile, another team of scientists has calculated that cold traps — shadows that are cold enough to freeze water for billions of years — are much more abundant than we previously thought.

    The findings, published in the journal Nature Astronomy, are a major boost for future missions to the Moon.

    We've answered five quick questions about how excited we should be and what happens next.

    Just to be clear — there is actual water on the Moon?

    Yes. That's right. Water molecules.

    We've suspected the Moon has lots of frozen water ice tucked away in craters at the north and south poles that never see the Sun.

    But what's remarkable about this discovery is that water molecules — not ice — were found in a crater that is exposed to sunlight.

    "For the first time we have unambiguously detected molecular water on the sunlit Moon," said the study's lead author Dr Casey Honniball of NASA's Goddard Space Center.

    We know it's water because water molecules — two hydrogen atoms bound to an oxygen atom — give off a signal at a specific wavelength that can't be mistaken for anything else.

    "Our detection shows that water may be more widespread on the surface of the Moon than previously thought and not constrained to only the pole."

    Go deeper: NASA reports traces of water on the Moon, and ice could be widespread

    Is there enough water on the Moon to drink?

    There's roughly the equivalent of a 350 ml bottle of water in a cubic metre of lunar soil. But don't raise your cup just yet.

    The water is trapped inside glass,so it won't be that easy to get to.

    But ... the other study found that there are lots more places near the poles where the temperatures are cold enough for ice to have stayed frozen for billions of years.

    The scientists estimate around 40,000 square kilometres of lunar surface near the poles could have ice.

    And we're not just talking deep craters that never see the light of day. It might be possible to find ice in places that are much easier to get to, such as shadows under a rock.

    So pack a shovel with your spacesuit (and don't forget your heavy-duty thermals it gets very cold on the Moon when the Sun goes down every 28 days and the 14-day night begins.

    Where does the water come from? Does it rain on the Moon?

    The Moon doesn't have an atmosphere, so it doesn't rain.

    In fact, it's a pretty hostile place. It's blasted with solar wind that carries hydrogen, it's been bombarded with meteorites over billions of years, and it doesn't tilt like Earth so the north and south poles never see the Sun.

    The researchers suggest that water was created by the impact of meteorites slamming into the surface of the Moon.

    The water was either carried in on the meteorites, or the collisions transformed existing hydrogen and oxygen in the soil into water.

    This water was either trapped into glass beads or frozen in areas that have never seen the Sun.

    What do we know about the flying telescope that found it?

    Meet SOFIA.

    Short for Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, NASA's flying telescope is literally a modified 747 aeroplane kitted out with a telescope at the back.

    But it's not always in the air.

    It flies on 10-hour overnight missions above the clouds in the stratosphere to view things in the infrared range.

    For the latest discovery it used an infrared camera called FORCAST, which can detect wavelengths of light between 5 and 8 microns.

    Water has a signature of 6 microns.

    Go deeper: Spend a night on NASA's flying telescope

    So what does this mean for plans to put humans back on the Moon?

    If the Moon was already a hot destination, it just got hotter.

    Knowing that there is definitely water on the Moon, and that it could be in easily accessible areas, means that there is potential to set up a moon base, and mine water in space to make rocket fuel in the future.

    Space water — which includes Moon water — is already a commodity.

    In 2016, an American spacecraft launch company announced they would pay $US3,000 a kilogram for water or oxygen and hydrogen mined in space.

    There are a number of countries including the US and China that have announced plans to have bases at the South Pole by the end of the decade.

    The US recently announced plans to put humans on the Moon in 2024 and have a permanent presence at the South Pole by 2028.

    One of the big goals of the Artemis mission, of which Australia is a signatory, is to hunt for water.

    © 2020 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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