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Water on the Moon

You have no doubt already heard that NASA has announced that water is, unequivocally, present on the Moon. Research now suggests that there may be an enormous amount.

2020 has been a busy year in space. In addition to NASA's announcement at the beginning of the week that there was water on the Moon, news comes through that NASA has commissioned Nokia to build a 4G phone network on the lunar surface and, meanwhile, Russia, China and the UAE have all launched missions to Mars.

And, let's not forget, SpaceX became the first private venture to deliver astronauts to the International Space Station and this year is, extraordinary, going to have 13 Full Moons.

So, why should it now surprise anyone to learn that scientists estimate that the Moon may be home to around 15,000 square miles of ice?

Scientists have long suspected that Earth’s moon holds water. They know that the lunar poles contain hydrogen, which suggests that there’s frozen water there. For decades, researchers have been searching for direct evidence to confirm their suspicions. In a big announcement this week by NASA, researchers said they’d found evidence of water in regions all around the moon.

Furthermore, in one new paper, researchers used previous knowledge about the Moon’s surface to build a 3D computer model of the orb, and have detected what they think are tiny shadows that may conceal pockets of billion-year-old ice. If proven by on-the-ground evidence, this discovery could reveal further details about mysteries like how water reached Earth in the first place and why the Moon still has water - and increases the potential for the Moon to one day play a big role in humanity’s quest for space.

“We’ve been searching for ice on the moon for about a decade now,” says Paul Hayne, a professor in the Laboratory of Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado at Boulder and a co-author on the study. Most of those efforts focused on the large craters -some as massive as the Grand Canyon - near the lunar poles, which are known to be cold enough to maintain ice.

But in 2014, Hayne and his colleagues were trying to figure out the ice distribution on Ceres, a dwarf planet in the asteroid belt that’s believed to have water trapped on the surface in a similar fashion to what was just identified on the Moon. They decided to create a topographic map for Ceres to identify the trapped liquid, when they realized a similar approach would work for the Moon.

The researchers used three data sources that had identified details about the Moon’s surface to build a 3D model of the Moon’s surface and estimate the occurrence of permanently shadowed spots where frozen water could remain. These small spots, known as “cold traps,” range in size from about the diameter of a belly button to much larger craters that could take 10 minutes to walk across. The majority are near the moon’s south pole, and the research team estimates that they could add up to about 15,000 square miles of cold trap.

Hayne says that he thinks there should be an opportunity to retrieve samples for scientific research purposes before any planned long-term human trips to the moon. If all goes according to plan, NASA’s VIPER Lunar Rover mission will land on the moon in 2022 and collect some of these wanted samples.

“It’ll be great to get the ground truth,” says Sarah Noble, a NASA planetary geologist. The fact that there’s probably frozen water in the tiny shadows of the Moon is “one of those things that’s sort of obvious in retrospect,” she says.

The frozen Moon water offers tantalizing opportunities for planetary scientists. But it might also make the big business of space travel a little more feasible. Leaving Earth is both expensive and logistically difficult, since you have to get everything out of Earth’s gravitational field. “The hardest part of getting to Mars or the Moon is getting off of the Earth,” says NASA research scientist Jennifer Heldmann.

In recent years NASA and other public and private space entities have started thinking about how space exploration would change if we weren’t limited by resources brought from Earth, but were able to extract needed resources, like water, from space itself. So, if the VIPER Lunar Rover mission is successful, we should know the answer at some point during 2022.

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