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Hidden water on the moon? Lunar explorers could make a splash

New research suggests accessing water on the moon's surface might be easier than it seemed. That's good news for dreams of a moon base or something bigger.

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The moon could be much wetter than it looks, a revelation that bodes well for plans to return and resume exploring our nearest celestial neighbor. 

The notion that our original satellite is a dry, dead rock started to change nearly a decade ago when tiny amounts of water were detected in volcanic glass beads brought back from the surface of the moon by Apollo 15 and 17. New research published Monday in Nature Geoscience used data from India's Chandrayaan-1 lunar orbiter to determine that the pyroclastic flows of ancient lava that left those beads were once common on the moon's surface -- a finding that has interesting implications for the presence of water, too.


Colored areas indicate elevated water content on the surface of the moon. Yellows and reds indicate the richest water content.

Milliken Lab / Brown University

"By looking at the orbital data, we can examine the large pyroclastic deposits on the moon that were never sampled by the Apollo or Luna missions," said Ralph Milliken, Brown University associate professor and lead author of the new study, in a release. "The fact that nearly all of them exhibit signatures of water suggests that the Apollo samples are not anomalous, so it may be that the bulk interior of the moon is wet."  

A newfound source of water on the moon could also bode well for our long-held visions of a lunar base. (A round of low-gravity golf, anyone?)

"Other studies have suggested the presence of water ice in shadowed regions at the lunar poles, but the pyroclastic deposits are at locations that may be easier to access," said co-author and recent Brown Ph.D. graduate Shuai Li. "Anything that helps save future lunar explorers from having to bring lots of water from home is a big step forward, and our results suggest a new alternative."

While the volcanic beads brought back to Earth only contain about 0.05 percent water by weight, the researchers say that the deposits they came from on the moon are large and that it could be possible to extract those precious molecules.

Recent years have seen lots of enthusiasm for humans to set foot, and perhaps set up shop, on Mars. Elon Musk says he'd like to send a million of us there. But a source of water on the moon could add to a growing undercurrent of renewed excitement about returning to the moon. Besides Moon Express, Japan, Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin and even Musk are among the other big names tossing out new lunar visions.

We could soon find out just how easy it is to make use of the moon's hidden water supply. Private company and Google Lunar X Prize competitor Moon Express said earlier this month it's on target to send a lander to the lunar surface this year and could begin preliminary "mining" efforts to bring back new samples for study as soon as 2020.

"Moon Express' first prospecting efforts will be studying pyroclastic deposits on the moon, which hold unique clues to potential deposits of lunar water and other resources," Moon Express founder and CEO Bob Richards told me via email. "Our baseline landing site for our maiden lunar expedition is an equatorial region of the moon high in pyroclastic deposits."

The research was funded by NASA, which didn't immediately respond to my inquiry about whether the discovery has any implications for future missions to the moon. But Dr. Sarah Noble, a program scientist in the agency's Planetary Science Division says the findings are exciting, even if it amounts to only a very small amount of water hidden in lunar soil.

"The new results from Milliken and Li show that the water is widespread, found in numerous pyroclastic deposits across the lunar surface, suggesting that the lunar mantle has significant amounts of water, not just in a couple of weird pockets," she said. 

Perhaps this latest discovery will be the one that replaces the old face of the "man in the moon" with a number of fresh new faces of men and women on the moon.

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