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There’s Water on the Moon?

The Moon holds a special place for humans. As the closest celestial object to Earth and with the recent advances made in lunar exploration, the Moon will continue to be an important object to study.

photograph of full moon

The early Moon landings during the Apollo era were followed by a lull in lunar studies until the early 1990s with the Clementine and Lunar Prospector, SMART-1, Kaguya, Chang’e missions, Chandrayaan-1, Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, etc.

A decade ago, ISRO launched its first mission to the Moon, Chandrayaan-1. It was a unique mission in many respects with the key focus to search for evidence of water on the Moon, understand the origin of the Moon from minerals and chemical composition studies, map the lunar surface in greater detail and detect and identify the presence of atomic species in the thin atmosphere of the Moon.

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Chandrayaan-1 was unique in inviting international partners to join the lunar science investigation through contributed complementary instruments or jointly developed experiments. The mission carried instruments from the USA, Europe and Bulgaria. 

Chandrayaan-1 data showed evidence of water in the exosphere of the Moon, on the surface of the Moon and also on the sub-surface (tens of meters deep).  

In the thin atmosphere of the Moon, the mass spectrometer experiment (CHACE on Moon Impact Probe) showed evidence of water even within its limited operational time, as the Moon Impact Probe was deployed in its destructive, ballistic trajectory to the south pole region. 

The polar region of the Moon is believed to host volatiles like water. Water is expected from the primordial region (3-4 billion years ago) which remained preserved due to the unique geometry of solar illumination which prevents direct sunlight from entering craters in polar regions. 

Evidence of subsurface water emerged from the Synthetic Aperture Radars deployed on the lunar mission including those on Chandrayaan-1 and LRO (Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter). The mapping was most intense at the poles, yielding evidence for subsurface water-ice. 

To add strength to the overall story of water on the Moon, in mid-2017, a core group from the same team that reported the recent M3 (Moon Mineralogy Mapper) findings studied volcanic rocks from Apollo 15 and 17 using very sensitive instruments and reported the larger than anticipated abundance of water in these rocks which emerged from the lunar interior.

Numerous years of pursuing laser ranging of the Moon using Earth-based powerful lasers which were reflected off the retroreflectors left on the Moon by Apollo (11, 14, 15) astronauts and the Lunokhod (1 and 2) landers, showed evidence of liquid core. 

The comprehensive evidence for lunar water coming from the surface, sub-surface, deep interior and the exosphere are most exciting as one looks at the future of space exploration and travel. The ready access to water at the poles has both scientific and utilization interests.

A sample of primordial water would be key towards addressing the origin of water on the Moon as well as Earth and may have more to say on the story of water in the solar system.

As we begin a wider exploration of space and the solar system, the Moon could form the base for fuel and oxygen and other critical raw materials.  

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