In the darkest and coldest parts of its polar regions, a team of scientists has directly observed definitive evidence of water ice on the Moon’s surface. These ice deposits are patchily distributed and could possibly be ancient. At the southern pole, most of the ice is concentrated at lunar craters, while the northern pole’s ice is more widely, but sparsely spread.
A team of scientists, led by Shuai Li of the University of Hawaii and Brown University, Rhode Island, United States and including Richard Elphic from NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley, also in the United States, used data from NASA’s Moon Mineralogy Mapper (M3) instrument to identify three specific signatures that definitively prove there is water ice at the surface of the Moon.
M3, aboard the Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft, launched in 2008 by the Indian Space Research Organization, was uniquely equipped to confirm the presence of solid ice on the Moon. It collected data that not only picked up the reflective properties we’d expect from ice, but was able to directly measure the distinctive way its molecules absorb infrared light, so it can differentiate between liquid water or vapour and solid ice.
Most of the newfound water ice lies in the shadows of craters near the poles, where the warmest temperatures never reach above minus 157 degrees Celsius (minus 250 degrees Fahrenheit). Because of the very small tilt of the Moon’s rotation axis, sunlight never reaches these regions.
Previous observations indirectly found possible signs of surface ice at the lunar south pole, but these could have been explained by other phenomena, such as unusually reflective lunar soil.
With enough ice sitting at the surface – within the top few millimetres – water would possibly be accessible as a resource for future expeditions to explore and even stay on the Moon, and potentially easier to access than the water detected beneath the Moon’s surface.
Learning more about this ice, how it got there, and how it interacts with the larger lunar environment will be a key mission focus for NASA and commercial partners, as we endeavour to return to and explore our closest neighbour, the Moon.
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