Water is an essential component for life on Earth. Without it, none of us would be here reading this article. We take it for granted, but for many years it was thought that our nearest celestial neighbor didn’t have even one drop of the stuff. In this article, we take a look at what recent discoveries have told us about water on the Moon.
Has Water Been Located on the Moon?
Early astronomers looked up at the dark areas of the Moon and believed them to be liquid water. They called them maria, which is the Latin word for seas. We now know this is not the case, but those seas of basalt rock are still called maria today.
Following the revelation that those areas were not actually water, scientists believed for many years that no water existed on the Moon at all.
It wasn’t until 2020 that scientists at NASA finally confirmed that there are indeed water molecules on the lunar surface.
How Was Water Found on the Moon?
The first indication that there may be water in or around the Moon came during the Apollo 14 mission. Water vapor ions were detected on some equipment and some lunar rock samples, but the discovery was thought to just be contamination.
When missions to the Moon escalated in the late 2000s, spacecraft from India and the United States detected some hydration on the Lunar surface. The problem was that scientists could not pinpoint if what they were detecting was actually water (H2O) or just hydroxyl (OH).
Finally, in just 2020, NASA turned their modified Boeing 747 jetliner, called SOFIA, toward the surface of the Moon. The craft finally confirmed that at least some of those molecules are actually water. It’s a minimal amount of water – about 100 times less than what’s hidden in the Sahara desert – but it is there.
Where is the Water First Discovered?
As the telescope aboard the SOFIA scanned the Lunar surface, the water molecules it discovered were located in the Clavius Crater in the Moon’s southern hemisphere. The crater is one of the largest visible from Earth.
How Can Water Even Exist on the Moon?
Temperatures on the Moon can easily reach 120° Celsius (248° Fahrenheit) on any given day, which is higher than the boiling point of water. You’d think that any water that did exist on its surface would evaporate away. With the Moon’s all but non-existent atmosphere, the Sun would cause it to disappear into the far reaches of space.
As it turns out, the Moon has several large craters near each of its poles that are steep enough to never see sunlight at their deepest points. These places are known as permanently shadowed regions and are not unique to the Moon.
However, in the Moon’s case, temperatures in these sunless areas never reach the melting point of water, let alone its boiling point. In fact, temperatures in these craters can fall as low as -250° C (-418° F)! That’s colder than the surface of Pluto!
Once scientists discovered water molecules in the Clavius Crater, it was only a matter of time before water was found in others just like it.
Where Did the Water Come From?
There are two main schools of thought around how water made its way to the Moon in the first place. If the Moon actually once was a piece of Earth that broke off during a cataclysmic collision, then it stands to reason that some water molecules were present during the Moon’s formation.
It’s also possible the water was brought to the Moon by cosmic travelers such as comets and asteroids. If any of these objects had water and were the cause of these massive craters, it makes sense that the water would be left behind. With only a tiny atmosphere, those objects would not have heated up as they do on Earth.
How Much Water Is There?
While the simple answer to this question is, “No one knows for sure,” scientists are always looking for a more concrete answer. Now that they know to look in craters at the Lunar poles, there have been many discoveries of ice hidden away.
NASA has since located over 40 craters with ice in them. Each crater is a different size, and it’s not possible at this stage to determine just how thick the ice is, but the team at NASA estimates there could be over 1.3 trillion pounds (600 metric tons) of water on the Moon.
What Is the Significance of Water on the Moon?
These potentially large pockets of water have shown scientists that they know far less about the Moon than initially thought. These discoveries have birthed a new interest in the Moon and even implications for sustaining life on its surface at some point in the future.
What’s the Plan for Future Lunar Missions?
This new information has caused a shift in the plan for future missions to the Moon. Several countries, including China, Korea, and the United States, plan to send unmanned spacecraft to the Moon’s poles in the next few years.
These missions will carry equipment designed to dig deeper into these ice-filled craters and create an accurate readout of what’s there.
Can We Live on the Moon?
While there does seem to be a significant amount of water on the Moon, it is hidden away in specific spots at the poles that no manned craft has ever traveled close to.
No human will quickly forget that water is just one of the many necessities to survive anywhere in the universe. There is no breathable air on the Moon, and temperatures range several hundred degrees between day and night. The soil lacks nutrients and is in no way fertile for growing crops.
These are just some of the obstacles that humanity will have to overcome before we can safely live on the Moon’s surface.
We’ve gazed up at the Moon for thousands of years and are still learning new things about it in our current day and age. The confirmation of water on its surface has garnered a new excitement towards our only natural satellite. Time will tell what these discoveries will mean for the future of our relationship with our heavenly neighbor.