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New analysis strengthens evidence of water in lunar polar craters

ice signatures in lunar south pole craters

The uncertainty of science: Scientists using data from India’s Chandrayaan-1lunar orbiter today claimed that they have confirmed water in the Moon’s polar craters.

A team of scientists, led by Shuai Li of the University of Hawaii and Brown University and including Richard Elphic from NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley, used data from NASA’s Moon Mineralogy Mapper (M3) instrument to identify three specific signatures that definitively prove there is water ice at the surface of the Moon.

M3, aboard the Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft, launched in 2008 by the Indian Space Research Organization, was uniquely equipped to confirm the presence of solid ice on the Moon. It collected data that not only picked up the reflective properties we’d expect from ice, but was able to directly measure the distinctive way its molecules absorb infrared light, so it can differentiate between liquid water or vapor and solid ice.

Most of the newfound water ice lies in the shadows of craters near the poles, where the warmest temperatures never reach above minus 250 degrees Fahrenheit. Because of the very small tilt of the Moon’s rotation axis, sunlight never reaches these regions.

The image on the right shows the craters surrounding the south pole with water ice signatures, according to this new analysis.

This press release has some puzzling aspects. First, it is almost a decade since this data was gathered. Why is this suddenly reported now, just prior to the launch of Chandrayaan-2? I suspect this release has come out now to garner some PR for that new mission.

Also, there is nothing in this release that explains why these results should be considered more certain than previous results. In fact, previous data from different lunar orbits has been somewhat contradictory, suggesting a lot of uncertainty about the presence of water-ice at the lunar poles that this story does not address or alleviate in any way.

Nonetheless, this new analysis and data adds more weight to the possibility of water near the lunar poles, making that real estate a prime target for future bases. Too bad it is China that is aiming to grab this territory, while NASA wants us to circle the Moon in LOP-G, going nowhere.

Pioneer cover

From the press release: From the moment he is handed a possibility of making the first alien contact, Saunders Maxwell decides he will do it, even if doing so takes him through hell and back.

Unfortunately, that is exactly where that journey takes him.

The vision that Zimmerman paints of vibrant human colonies on the Moon, Mars, the asteroids, and beyond, indomitably fighting the harsh lifeless environment of space to build new societies, captures perfectly the emerging space race we see today.

He also captures in Pioneer the heart of the human spirit, willing to push forward no matter the odds, no matter the cost. It is that spirit that will make the exploration of the heavens possible, forever, into the never-ending future.

Available everywhere for $3.99 (before discount) at amazon, Barnes & Noble, all ebook vendors, or direct from the ebook publisher, ebookit. And if you buy it from ebookit you don't support the big tech companies and I get a bigger cut much sooner.


  • D. Lawrence

    I think the reason this study is using data that has been around for so long is that this analysis was very challenging. It used reflected light to image inside the permanently shaded craters with data from an instrument not designed for such low light levels. Much work was needed to tease out the signals from these data to get the results. And I expect the timing had little to nothing to do with the upcoming Indian mission.

  • D. Lawrence: I know you are planetary scientist whose has done work in this very field. How confident are you with these results?

  • Max

    The shadowed craters of the lunar pole have been measured recently to be near 400° below zero. The extreme cold temperatures act as a magnet to pull in water, methane, ammonia and all other gas/ice compounds that would normally boil away in the vacuum of space. Their location is evidence that UV, visible, or thermal red radiation can not affect it.
    For reflected starlight to give enough spectra signature on the old detector not designed for such Low tolerance levels does not inspire much confidence. The error factor will be high.

    There are political motives for raising awareness in the value of the real estate at these locations.
    If thar are gold in them thar hills, darn Tootin you better expect a gold rush. Water is more valuable than gold in space. It is life, oxygen, rocket fuel, necessary in food production. Everything a independent colony needs to survive.
    Nations are negotiating how to best divide this valuable real estate. Meanwhile, independent/more powerful nations have decided to run a head of the others to stake a claim. Establish a foot hole, ask for forgiveness later. The others will see this as claim jumping.
    In the end, might makes right, and the others would have to negotiate a share or join together in an alliance to counter any perceived claim.
    If you see a “space force” of robotic drones specialized for this and other perceived threats, then we will know for a certainty that they are preparing for such an outcome.
    When is the dust settles it will be the UN officially licensed “industrial complex” that will be running things…
    From the high ground, there is no target on Earth that cannot be destroyed by simply dropping a rock on it. Ultimate control.

  • D. Lawrence

    Bob – just getting back to this. I will leave aside Max’s comments as that is outside my wheel house. Your question about confidence in their results is a good one. While I only browsed through their paper, and I am reasonably confident in its results. First, I personally know a number of the authors, and they are consistently careful in doing prior analyses; and so, to that extent I trust them in this analysis as well. Second, in my brief read through the paper, there are a number of cross checks they have done with the data that appear to make sense. Finally, while this was pitched as an exciting new result (which it is), it is also broadly consistent with prior results that have investigated surficial water/frost within the Moon’s PSRs. Prior results have included data from LRO’s laser altimeter and LAMP instrument. So consistency across datasets increases confidence. At this point, one of the larger remaining perplexities is we still do not understand how these surficial measurements relate to the bulk hydrogen concentrations (i.e., hydrogen/volatile species not on the optical surface, but down to depths of 10s of cm) between and within various PSRs. This is related to the neutron measurement disagreements you have discussed in prior years. If you want more details, you can contact me personally.

  • The issue now is, where is the best location where lunar surface ice is closest to one of the Peaks of Persistent Illumination (PPIs)? From my eyeballing of these new graphs, it appears that the best location is at the 8 o’clock position on Shackleton’s rim where there is close proximity of one of these PPIs to a crater just off the rim.

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