Meteorites may be excavating lunar water | Science News for Students

Meteorites may be excavating lunar water

Molecules kicked up by incoming space rocks suggest water is buried in the moon’s soil
May 22, 2019 — 6:45 am EST
a telescopic image of the moon

Water molecules near the moon hint that our natural satellite has water under its soil.


Meteor showers bring moon sprays. A spacecraft spotted extra water around the moon when the moon passed through streams of cosmic dust that can cause meteor showers on Earth.

The water was probably released from the lunar soil by tiny meteorite impacts, scientists say. Those random impacts suggest water is not isolated in freezing dark craters. It likely is buried all over the moon. The new observations also suggest that the moon has been wet for billions of years.

There has been some uncertainty over the years about whether the moon has water. Samples of lunar soil brought back by the Apollo astronauts had suggested that the moon was bone dry. But in the last decade or so, several remote missions have found water deposits on the moon. There have even been signs of frozen surface water in regions that lie in a permanent shadow near the poles. Moon rocks have turned out to have water in them, too.

“We knew there was water in the soil,” says Mehdi Benna. He is a planetary scientist at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. He and colleagues discussed the moon sprays April 15 in Nature Geoscience. What scientists didn’t know was how widespread that water was, or how long it had been there.

Benna and his colleagues used observations from NASA’s LADEE spacecraft. It orbited the moon from November 2013 to April 2014. Some of LADEE’s instruments were spectrometers (Spek-TRAH-meh-turz). They break apart light to reveal the chemical fingerprints of whatever they are studying. These instruments detected dozens of sharp increases in the abundance of water molecules around the moon. Those molecules were in the moon’s exosphere. That’s a thin layer of gas molecules that cling to the moon.

When the team looked at their data closely, they realized some of the measurements coincided with the moon passing through known clouds of space dust. When Earth passes through those clouds, the dust burns up in Earth’s atmosphere. That produces annual meteor showers such as the Leonids and the Geminids. But the moon has no true atmosphere, just its exosphere. Bits of dust from the same showers strike the moon’s surface directly. And they will stir up what lies beneath.

Benna’s team calculated that only meteorites heavier than about 0.15 gram (0.005 ounce) could have kicked up the water. And those micro-rocks could go pretty deep into the soil. That means the top 8 centimeters (3 inches) or so of lunar soil is dry. Smaller impacts would have released water if any were in the top 8 centimeters. Beneath that dry coating, however, is a global layer of soil laced with frozen water — ice clinging to dust grains.

The moon is by no means soggy. Squeezing half a ton of lunar soil would yield barely a small bottle of water, Benna says. “It’s not a lot of water by any measure, but it’s still water.” And it’s too much water to have arrived at the moon recently, he says. The moon may have held on to at least some of this water since the time of its formation.

Future studies could help figure out whether and how that water could be useful for human explorers.

The finding is “plausible and certainly provocative,” says Erik Asphaug. He is a planetary scientist at the University of Arizona in Tucson. “It’s the kind of paper that is good to see published so we can debate it.”

Power Words

(more about Power Words)

annual     Adjective for something that happens every year. (in botany) A plant that lives only one year, so it usually has a showy flower and produces many seeds.

astronaut     Someone trained to travel into space for research and exploration.

atmosphere     The envelope of gases surrounding Earth or another planet.

chemical     A substance formed from two or more atoms that unite (bond) in a fixed proportion and structure. For example, water is a chemical made when two hydrogen atoms bond to one oxygen atom. Its chemical formula is H2O. Chemical also can be an adjective to describe properties of materials that are the result of various reactions between different compounds.

colleague     Someone who works with another; a co-worker or team member.

cosmic     An adjective that refers to the cosmos — the universe and everything within it.

crater     A large, bowl-shaped cavity in the ground or on the surface of a planet or the moon. They are typically caused by an explosion or the impact of a meteorite or other celestial body. Such an impact is sometimes referred to as a cratering event.

exosphere     The very thin outer reaches of Earth’s atmosphere, or the gas covering of some celestial object (such as the moon) that is so thin it’s almost as if it doesn’t exist.

geoscience     Any of a number of sciences, like geology or atmospheric science, concerned with better understanding Earth. People who work in this field are known as geoscientists.

lunar     Of or relating to Earth’s moon.

meteor     A lump of rock or metal from space that hits the atmosphere of Earth. In space it is known as a meteoroid. When you see it in the sky it is a meteor. And when it hits the ground it is called a meteorite.

molecule     An electrically neutral group of atoms that represents the smallest possible amount of a chemical compound. Molecules can be made of single types of atoms or of different types. For example, the oxygen in the air is made of two oxygen atoms (O2), but water is made of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom (H2O).

moon     The natural satellite of any planet.

NASA     Short for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Created in 1958, this U.S. agency has become a leader in space research and in stimulating public interest in space exploration. It was through NASA that the United States sent people into orbit and ultimately to the moon. It also has sent research craft to study planets and other celestial objects in our solar system.

poles     (in Earth science and astronomy) The cold regions of the planet that exist farthest from the equator; the upper and lower ends of the virtual axis around which a celestial object rotates. 

random     Something that occurs haphazardly or without reason, based on no intention or purpose.

spectrometer     An instrument that measures a spectrum, such as light, energy, or atomic mass. Typically, chemists use these instruments to measure and report the wavelengths of light that it observes. The collection of data using this instrument, a process is known as spectrometry, can help identify the elements or molecules present in an unknown sample.

uncertainty     (in statistics) A range of how much measurements of something will vary around an already-measured value.


Journal:​ ​​ M. Benna et al. Lunar soil hydration constrained by exospheric water liberated by meteoroid impactsNature Geoscience. Published online April 15, 2019. doi:10.1038/s41561-019-0345-3.