Three Separate Spacecraft Have Detected Significant Water On the Moon: Why Has NASA Waited So Long To Say So?

By Keith Cowing
September 23, 2009
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Three Separate Spacecraft Have Detected Significant Water On the Moon: Why Has NASA Waited So Long To Say So?

Three articles will appear in Science Magazine tomorrow – one paper each describing results on lunar observations from three spacecraft: Deep Impact aka EPOXI, Cassini, and Chandrayaan-1. Three different spacecraft – three different instruments – all saying the same thing about the presence of water and other materials on the Moon.

The EPOXI (Deep Impact) paper (“Temporal and Spatial Variability of Lunar Hydration as Observed by the Deep Impact Spacecraft”, Sunshine et al) says that water has been “unequivocally” confirmed and that “the entire lunar surface is hydrated during at least some portions of the lunar day”.

In another paper, previously unreleased 1999 flyby data from Cassini (“Detection of Adsorbed Water and Hydroxyl on the Moon”, Roger N. Clark) shows hydroxyl concentrations on “the sunlit face of the Moon”. Water was detected in concentrations as high as “10 to 1,000 parts per million” and according to the paper “Regardless of its origin, water is found on the lunar surface in areas previously thought to have been depleted in volatiles.”

The Chandrayaan-1 paper (“Character and Spatial Distribution of OH/H2O on the Surface of the Moon Seen by M3 on Chandrayaan-1″, C. M. Pieters et al) says “data suggests that the formation and retention of OH and H2O is an ongoing surficial process. OH/H2O production processes may feed polar cold traps and make the lunar regolith a candidate source of volatiles for human exploration.”

It would seem that NASA has been sitting on a lot of data confirming with regard to the Moon – in some cases, for years. Meanwhile, a lot of people are trying to downplay the importance of these findings in and around NASA at the same time it would seem that the Moon has been revealed as being much more useful than had been previously released publicly. NASA’s Science Mission Directorate has some explaining to do.

NASA to Reveal New Scientific Findings About the Moon, NASA

“NASA will hold a media briefing at 2 p.m. EDT on Thursday, Sept. 24, to discuss new science data from the moon collected during national and international space missions. NASA Television and the agency’s Web site will provide live coverage of the briefing from the James E. Webb Memorial Auditorium at NASA Headquarters, 300 E St. SW, in Washington”

Liveblogging notes from the 24 September 2009 NASA telecon:

Green: 4.5 GYA something hit the Earth. As it cooled Earth lost most of its volatiles. Moon rocks 50 ppm water on Apollo returned moon rocks. If we extracted all the water form Apollo rocks it would fill a table soon. Based on our observations is that Moon is very dry. Lunar Prospector found Neutrons emitted by the moon due to cosmic rays hitting Moon surface and generating Neutrons. Over poles this flux dropped. Water is a known inhibitor of this. General thinking was that Moon is bone dry except for polar, shadowed regions. Today’s announcement is a major advancement of our knowledge of water on surface of the Moon. Measurements from three spacecraft were critical to confirm the findings that we will discuss today.

Carle Pieters: The Moon continues to surprise us. Widespread water has been deteced on the surface of the Moon. You have to think outside the box – this is not what any of us extected a decade ago. We are looking at water and hydroxyl on the Moon. We are looking at radiation that is reflected from the Moon. We will be coming back to this fingerprint – this highly diagnostic figure of water on the surface of the Moon. There is spatial variability – some areas have a stronger signal than others. Detected at high latittudes as well also in craters. Even in small craters you get detection of a strong signal. We do not know what physical form water taks on the surface. What we are seeing in the uppermost 2mm surface of the lunar surface. It might be a layer on top of the soil, or altered rocks.

Green: Images that come on 19 Nov 2008 – measuring spectral response of the Moon. Very excited to see this. We have 1000 GB of data returned from M3 over 10 months. Mineral results: Iron bearing minerals similar to basalt lavas in Hawaiian volcanoes. I invite you to look at the Moon and understand that the Moon is much more than just a gray body orbiting the Earth – it is full of spectral content.

Clark: Cassini flew by Earth and Moon on a gravity assist in August 1999. What is astounding is that water and hydroxyl exist at all latitudes. The amount of water is small – a liter of water per ton of lunar material in the near surface area. There are some indications that young craters have excavated water and hydroxyl rich material from below the surface.

Sunshine: Deep Impact has been on an extended mission since 2005 for another comet encounter. Spacecraft made several observations of the Moon for calibration purposes. While our instrument was designed for comets is ideally suited to measure OH and H20 features on the Moon. We acquired lunar data in 2007 and June 2009. Process may be at work on other solar system bodies as well.

Jim Green: Even the driest desert on Earth has more water than the poles of the Moon.

Michael Wargo, ESMD: We are really excited about the results. We have an experiment on 9 Oct (LCROSS) that will look for potential of water in a shadowed crater near the lunar south pole. We will conduct that experiment by excavating the lunar surface – down a meter or so and look at potential distribution of water ice and other volatiles in the lunar surface.

NASA Watch: I asked why, if this data was collected in 2007, 2008, and 1999, that it was not published prior to this. {audio problems during question asking and response} Deep Impact collected data in the equator and we were not really looking at it – we did not know it until recently. As for Cassini all spacecraft have water in them and this needs to be calibrate dover time. It took 2004 to 2008 to do the calibration.

Editor’s update: OK, so if the Cassini calibration was done in 2008, then why wasn’t this calibrated 1999 lunar data released in 2008 or 2009 – and news of OH and H20 already common knowledge when Deep Impact and Chandrayaan-1 arrived and began to take their own measurements?

It’s not lunacy, probes find water in moon dirt, AP

“We argued literally for months amongst ourselves to find out where the problem was,” Pieters said. Sunshine, who was on the team, had a similar instrument on NASA’s Deep Impact probe, headed for a comet but swinging by the moon in June. So Deep Impact looked for the water-hydroxyl signature — and found it. Scientists also looked back at the records of NASA’s Cassini probe, which is circling Saturn. It has the same type instrument and whizzed by the moon ten years ago. Sure enough, it had found the same thing. The chance that three different instruments malfunctioned in the same way on three different spaceships is almost zilch, so this confirms that it’s water and hydroxyl, Pieters said.”

Editor’s update: Interesting … Cassini made this discovery a decade ago – and yet NASA did not even know that it had done so. Just goes to show you that new discoveries can be found in old data.

NASA Instruments Reveal Water Molecules on Lunar Surface

“NASA scientists have discovered water molecules in the polar regions of the moon. Instruments aboard three separate spacecraft revealed water molecules in amounts that are greater than predicted, but still relatively small. Hydroxyl, a molecule consisting of one oxygen atom and one hydrogen atom, also was found in the lunar soil. The findings were published in Thursday’s edition of the journal Science.”

New research shows water present across the moon’s surface – It turns out the moon is a lot wetter than we ever thought, University of Tennessee Knoxville
“To some extent, we were fooled,” said Taylor, a distinguished professor of earth and planetary sciences, who has studied the moon since the original Apollo missions. “Since the boxes leaked, we just assumed the water we found was from contamination with terrestrial air.”

Brown Scientists Announce Finding of Water on the Moon

“Brown University scientists have made a major discovery: The moon has distinct signatures of water. The discovery came from a paper published in Science detailing findings from the Moon Mineralogy Mapper (M3), a NASA instrument aboard the Indian spacecraft Chandrayaan-1. Carle Pieters, professor of geological sciences at Brown, is the principal investigator of the M3 instrument and the lead author of the Science paper.”

Deep Impact Spacecraft Finds Clear Evidence of Water on Moon, University of Maryland

“Deep Impact was not designed to study the Moon, but for a famous 2005 mission in which it successfully knocked a hole in comet Tempel 1 to find out what was inside. Its data on lunar water were obtained as part of calibration opportunities that occurred during June 2009 and December 2007 flybys of the Earth and Moon needed to get adequate gravity boosts to travel on its EPOXI mission to a second comet, Hartley 2, which the spacecraft will encounter in November 2010.”

SpaceRef co-founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.