Ice confirmed at the Moon’s poles
A team of researchers using data collected by NASA’s Moon Mineralogy Mapper (M3) instrument have directly observed definitive evidence of water ice at the Moon’s poles. While most of the ice at the southern pole is concentrated in lunar craters, the substance is more widely, but sparsely distributed, at the northern pole.
The M3 instrument flew aboard the Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft, launched by the Indian Space Research Organization in 2008. A team of researchers, headed by Shuai Li of the University of Hawaii and Brown University and including Richard Elphic of NASA’s Ames Research Center, used M3 data to identify three distinct signatures that definitely confirm the presence of water ice on the Moon’s surface.
Previous observations had indicated the possible presence of water ices at the lunar poles, but those results could be explained by other phenomena, such as unusually reflective lunar soil. M3 came especially well-equipped to confirm the presence of solid ice on the Moon. Not only could it detect the reflective properties expected from ice, but it could also directly measure the unique way its molecules absorb infrared light, so that instrument can distinguish between liquid water vapor and solid ice.
Most of the newly-confirmed water ice lies in shadowed craters near the lunar poles, where the warmest temperatures never reach above -250 degrees Fahrenheit, (-157 Celsius). Sunlight never reaches these areas due to the very small tilt of the Moon’s rotation axis.
If enough ice is on or near the Moon’s surface, water could be accessible as a resource for future expeditions to explore and possibly stay on the Moon. Learning more about this potential source of water and how it interacts with the lunar environment could become a vital mission goal for NASA and its commercial partners as they work to return to and further explore the Moon.
Jim Sharkey is a lab assistant, writer and general science enthusiast who grew up in Enid, Oklahoma, the hometown of Skylab and Shuttle astronaut Owen K. Garriott. As a young Star Trek fan he participated in the letter-writing campaign which resulted in the space shuttle prototype being named Enterprise. While his academic studies have ranged from psychology and archaeology to biology, he has never lost his passion for space exploration. Jim began blogging about science, science fiction and futurism in 2004. Jim resides in the San Francisco Bay area and has attended NASA Socials for the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover landing and the NASA LADEE lunar orbiter launch.