There has been 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 and including Richard Elphic from NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley, 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 vapor 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 -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 millimeters – 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 endeavor to return to and explore our closest neighbor, the Moon.
We found direct and definitive evidence for surface-exposed water ice in the lunar polar regions. The abundance and distribution of ice on the Moon are distinct from those on other airless bodies in the inner solar system such as Mercury and Ceres, which may be associated with the unique formation and evolution process of our Moon. These ice deposits might be utilized as an in situ resource in future exploration of the Moon.
Water ice may be allowed to accumulate in permanently shaded regions on airless bodies in the inner solar system such as Mercury, the Moon, and Ceres [Watson K, et al. (1961) J Geophys Res 66:3033–3045]. Unlike Mercury and Ceres, direct evidence for water ice exposed at the lunar surface has remained elusive. We utilize indirect lighting in regions of permanent shadow to report the detection of diagnostic near-infrared absorption features of water ice in reflectance spectra acquired by the Moon Mineralogy Mapper [M (3)] instrument. Several thousand M (3) pixels (∼280 × 280 m) with signatures of water ice at the optical surface (depth of less than a few millimeters) are identified within 20° latitude of both poles, including locations where independent measurements have suggested that water ice may be present. Most ice locations detected in M (3) data also exhibit lunar orbiter laser altimeter reflectance values and Lyman Alpha Mapping Project instrument UV ratio values consistent with the presence of water ice and also exhibit annual maximum temperatures below 110 K. However, only ∼3.5% of cold traps exhibit ice exposures. Spectral modeling shows that some ice-bearing pixels may contain ∼30 wt % ice that is intimately mixed with dry regolith. The patchy distribution and low abundance of lunar surface-exposed water ice might be associated with the true polar wander and impact gardening. The observation of spectral features of H2O confirms that water ice is trapped and accumulates in permanently shadowed regions of the Moon, and in some locations, it is exposed at the modern optical surface.
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