Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Damp Side of the Moon

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Three spacecraft have obtained some astonishing data that completely contradicts a widely held belief in planetary science: there is water on the Moon. And not just a couple of rogue molecules, either. The Moon is actually "painted" with water and hydroxyl (see the blue and orange/green above, respectively).

It's everywhere. And now two enormous mysteries remain: How did it get there? And forgive the phrase, but why on Earth didn't we see it before?

Already scientists are speculating.

The water was discovered by measuring sunlight reflected off the Moon's surface. Researchers observed a dip at the wavelength where water absorbs infrared light, and found that the amount of absorption varied with temperature. According to the researchers:
That suggests the water is being created when protons from the solar wind slam into the lunar surface. The collisions may free oxygen atoms in the minerals and allow them to recombine with protons and electrons to form water.
So why didn't we find it before? Well, we did. Lunar soil brought back from the Apollo mission did show signs of water. But the Apollo scientists, erring on the side of caution, dismissed it as being more likely a result of contamination on re-entry. Which just goes to show you, even skeptics can overdo it.

At an estimated concentration of one quart of water per cubic yard (about a liter per cubic meter), all that remains now is to determine the effect this discovery will have on future attempts to actually colonize and form settlements on the Moon.

For my part, I'm just dying to try a sip.

- Brit Trogen

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