The Moon: a desert after all?

Genesis cover

On Christmas Eve 1968 three Americans became the first humans to visit another world. What they did to celebrate was unexpected and profound, and will be remembered throughout all human history. Genesis: the Story of Apollo 8, Robert Zimmerman's classic history of humanity's first journey to another world, tells that story, and it is now available as both an ebook and an audiobook, both with a foreword by Valerie Anders and a new introduction by Robert Zimmerman.

The ebook is available everywhere for $5.99 (before discount) at amazon, or direct from my ebook publisher, ebookit.

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"Not simply about one mission, [Genesis] is also the history of America's quest for the moon... Zimmerman has done a masterful job of tying disparate events together into a solid account of one of America's greatest human triumphs." --San Antonio Express-News

LEND data of lunar south pole

The uncertainty of science: A new science paper, published Saturday in the Journal of Geophysical Research – Planets,, has found that there is much less water ice trapped in the permanently shadowed craters of the lunar poles than previously thought. From the abstract:

This means that all [permanently shadowed regions], except those in Shoemaker, Cabeus and Rozhdestvensky U craters, do not contain any significant amount of hydrogen in comparison with sunlit areas around them at the same latitude.

And from the paper’s conclusion:

[E]ven now the data is enough for definite conclusion that [permanently shadowed regions] at both poles are not reservoirs of large deposits of water ice.

While this news might seem discouraging, the data still found three craters with strong evidence of water-ice, including Cabeus crater, which has already been independently confirmed to have water by the Deep Impact probe. This data means that future explorers now have a much better idea of where to go to get that water.

This is very valuable information. In the private sector, it would be considered proprietary and kept secret until the company that discovered it could stake a claim and begin reaping the rewards for their research. Since Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter is a NASA government probe, however, the result is released for everyone to read. And since NASA doesn’t have any plans to return to the Moon, this is the equivalent of that oil or gas company locating a reserve of fossil fuel and announcing it to the world so that their competitors could jump in and grab it.

These results also tell us that LCROSS in 2009 was very lucky in its choice of impact points. Had they picked any one of the majority of other candidate impact craters, they would have likely detected no water, and thus come up with a null result. Instead, they happened to pick one of only three craters that appear to really have frozen water buried in the crater’s permanently shadowed floor, and thus, they found evidence of water on the Moon. What the new data tells us is that this water is much rarer than the LCROSS result has suggested.


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  • You neglect to mention yet another possibility — that this paper and its conclusions are seriously flawed in almost every respect. The veracity of the LRO collimated neutron data have been questioned on serious scientific grounds. Other data sets (spectral, radar) suggest significant amounts of water at both poles, billions of metric tons in total.

  • Hi Paul,

    Thank you for providing additional information. I especially appreciate it when an actual lunar scientist chimes in.

    I’m aware that these results contradict the radar and spectral results. However, in science this just means that one of these results is wrong somewhere. Finding out who is the challenge. And in science, majority does not have to rule. One result can invalidate the results of a hundred papers, it if catches something everyone else missed.

    I’ve read the paper you offered above (Eke et al), and if I understand it correctly, it is saying that there is a problem with this particular LRO instrument, dubbed LEND. Eke et al claim that the instrument data is contaminated from another source which cannot now be determined, thus making its results untrustworthy. Is my interpretation correct?

    At the same time, the paper I referenced originally (Sanin et al), includes as co-authors some of the most well known and respected planetary scientists in the field. If the data was that flawed, I can’t imagine them putting their names on this paper.

    I and my readers would certainly appreciate more information. I have just now emailed one of the co-authors of Sanin et al to see if he can give me his perspective on this question.

  • Eke et al claim that the instrument data is contaminated from another source which cannot now be determined, thus making its results untrustworthy. Is my interpretation correct?

    Yes, more or less. Eke et al. claim that the LEND instrument (in its collimated (i.e., high-resolution) mode ONLY) is not measuring medium energy (epithermal) neutrons, but moderately high energy neutrons. But the real issue is that their counting statistics are much poorer than advertised; less than a few percent of the total signal is measuring “hydrogen” (to the extent that is being measured at all). The image you show in your post basically looks like noise. Thus, their conclusion about low hydrogen contents and the non-correspondence with permanently dark areas is questionable at best.

    The number of prestigious authors on a paper is no guarantee of its scientific validity.

    I wrote on this topic in my blog last March (HERE).

  • Joe

    “I’m aware that these results contradict the radar and spectral results. However, in science this just means that one of these results is wrong somewhere. Finding out who is the challenge.”

    Then wasn’t it a bit premature to title your article “The Moon: a desert after all” with not question marks or caveats?

  • Joe,

    You are right. I recognized the uncertainty of these results in my very first sentence. I should have included a question mark in my headline. I have made this change now.

  • Joe

    Not doing this to start an argument, but here is another report that supports the idea that the Moon is not a desert:
    “NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) spacecraft has returned data that indicate ice may make up as much as 22 percent of the surface material in a crater located on the moon’s south pole.”

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