China probe finds first on-site evidence of water on the Moon

Jan 13, 2022: China’s lunar lander has sent back the first on-site evidence of water on the moon.

In spectroscopic images of the lunar regolith, scientists have now found evidence of water on the Moon. According to measurements taken using Chang’E-5’s lunar mineralogical spectrometer, water can be found in abundances of up to 120 parts per million in the Northern Oceanus Procellarum where the spacecraft landed.

The Chang’e 5 lander first arrived on the moon at the end of 2022, with the task of photographing its landing area, mapping conditions blow the surface, and analysing lunar soil for minerals and water content.

In a study published in Science Advances, Chinese researchers claim the lander detected signs of water molecules or hydroxyl, a close chemical cousin of H2O. Chang’e-5 used a spectrometer to analyze the composition of regolith in close proximity to its landing site. It found that most of the soil had a water concentration of less than 120 parts per million, making the surface of Luna much drier than that of the Earth.

Chinese scientists believe most of the molecules came to the Moon through a process called solar wind implantation. Charged particles from the sun drove hydrogen atoms to the lunar surface where they later bonded with oxygen to form water and hydroxyl.

The study builds on findings NASA published in 2018 when it found evidence of water on the sunlit surfaces of the Moon using an airborne infrared telescope.

For decades, scientists had believed the Moon was completely dry due to its almost nonexistent atmosphere. With no atmosphere, the thought was there was nothing there to protect water molecules from the sun’s harsh radiation.

Although we’ve seen evidence of water on the Moon before, this has been either from orbiting or passing aircraft or samples returned to Earth. This new evidence is the first ever recovered from in situ measurements.

The breakthrough supports previous findings that water could be relatively abundant on the moon, bound up with minerals in the lunar regolith, the top layer of dust and rubble on the Moon’s surface.

The abundance is incredibly dry, by Earth standards, and extracting the water would not be easy, so this does not mean future Moon missions will have an easy-to-hand water source available.

The Chang’E-5’s measurements of a boulder in its vicinity revealed a higher water content – around 180 parts per million.

This interpretation is consistent with the Oceanus Procellarum’s history of extensive volcanism. This history was reinforced by analysis of the sample the Chang’e brought to earth which revealed that the region was volcanically active far longer than we had previously thought.

In turn, this suggests that specific volcanic deposits might be necessary for human life support for long-term lunar bases at lower latitudes, where ice deposits are less likely to form.

Future studies of the water content of the rock will be needed to determine whether it consists of water from the lunar interior, the researchers said.

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