Mirel ZamanRefinery 29 UKWed, 28 October 2020, 7:52 am GMT
When I heard that water was recently discovered on the surface of the moon, I’m not going to lie: My first thought was, I bet it tastes great.
I’m not alone in this, right? As a water lover — yes, we exist — I’m always chasing what food critic Jeffrey Steingarten refers to in his 1997 book, The Man Who Ate Everything: “that pure, clear, ethereal Alpine spring of our imaginations.” I picture moon water to be my ethereal Alpine spring: glacially cold and crisp; satisfyingly thirst-quenching; achingly crystalline.
Sadly, I may never know the joys of sipping on a refreshing glass of lunar liquid. The water isn’t hidden away in small ice-cold grottos tucked below the moon’s surface, like I was hoping. Instead, these water molecules are spread so far away from each other that they don’t even technically form a liquid. “To be clear, this is not puddles of water, but instead water molecules that are so spread apart that they do not form ice or liquid water,” Casey I. Honniball, the lead author of the study published in Nature Astronomy, said in a phone press briefing. A NASA press release stated that the Sahara desert has 100 times the amount of water than what was detected on the moon.
It will take scientists a long time to figure out how to gather up and mash together enough of those molecules to fill up the first Lunar Water™ bottle. (I think that’s how it’ll work, anyway.) Until then, here’s everything we know about the liquid that we really should be calling Moon Juice.
How exactly do we know that the moon is wet?
Scientists have suspected that there’s been water on the moon for a while now — they just didn’t know what kind: H2O (the stuff we drink) and hydroxyl (the stuff you find in drain cleaner). Big difference — and something you probably want to know before you take a swig.
That’s where NASA’s flying observatory, SOFIA, came in. (Yes, it took a womxn!). SOFIA, aka Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, is a modified Boeing that NASA uses as an observational aircraft. It allowed the scientists to study the moon’s surface in more detail — using a six micron wavelength, versus the puny three micron wavelength they’d been relying on before. This confirmed that the chemical signature of much of what’s on the surface of the moon is, indeed, the good ol’ H2O, said Honniball.
Even better? That water is cold. Another study confirmed that ice covers more of the moon than we once thought. It’s not just sticking at the moon’s poles, but scattered in shadowed pockets across the moon’s surface.
Where does the moon water come from?
Okay, so we now know the moon is a WAPlanet. But how? “The water that we observed has two potential sources,” Honniball explained during the press briefing. “It could be either from the solar wind or micrometeorites.” In other words, solar wind could be blowing hydrogen to the moon, where it reacts with oxygen in the soil. It’s also possible that the micrometeorites themselves contain water molecules (always smart to travel with extra on hand) that they transfer to the moon upon arrival.
The existence of this water is very impressive: Honniball went on to say that the sunlit surface of the moon should be inhospitable to the water molecules, but that glass beads created by the micrometeorite impact may trap the molecules on the surface.
Why is moon water such a big deal?
Because we’re trying to set foot on Mars — and the moon is our layover, baby! “With the Artemis program, NASA will land the first woman and the next man on the moon in 2024 and establish a sustainable human presence by the end of the decade. At the moon, we will prepare for human exploration of Mars,” said Paul Hertz, director of the Astrophysics Division in the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington, during the press briefing. If we’re going to be spending extended amounts of time in space, having water at our destination would be incredibly useful.
“Water is extremely critical for deep space exploration. It’s a resource of direct value for our astronauts,” Jacob Bleacher, chief exploration scientist for NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, said during the briefing. The hope would be that this water could serve many purposes. One day we might find a way for visiting astronauts to drink it, of course. But it could also potentially be used for fuel or to create oxygen.
All that matters because it would mean future space travellers wouldn’t have to lug so much water along with them, Bleacher said. “It’s far easier to travel when you don’t have to carry everything with you that you might need for the entire trip,” he said.
When can we drink moon water?
Unclear. “One of the things we don’t know yet is whether the water detected by SOFIA on the sunlit surface is accessible for use as a resource,” said Hertz. Right now, they don’t know how much water is there or where exactly it exists, but they’re starting by exploring the Clavius crater on the moon’s surface, which is one of the largest craters we can see from earth.
“At this location, the data reveal a water concentration of about 100 to 400 parts per million. That’s roughly the equivalent to a 12-ounce bottle of water within a cubic meter of volume of lunar soil,” Honniball said. But SOFIA only sensed the very surface, so it’s possible there could be more.
All that to say: It’s way too soon to speculate about when the first person will be sipping on moon water. But if someone is drinking it, it’s likely going to be an astronaut and not an influencer at Erewhon.
So… I probably shouldn’t buy that “moon water” I’m seeing on ebay?
The Moon Water you’re seeing might be the crystal-charged stuff, and if that’s what you’re looking for, more power to you. But no, we’re a long way out from seeing actual moon water taking its place next to Dirty Lemon and Blk. If you see anyone claiming to sell the stuff, you are officially in a suspicious corner of the internet. Put away your credit card and X out of the window.
Okay, okay — but please tell me I’ll one day drink moon water?
I know. I want to sip on that sweet, sweet moon juice, too. But even if scientists figured out how to turn the stuff that’s on the moon into drinkable water and bring it back to Earth, whether or not anyone is allowed to sell the stuff is up for debate.
NASA, along with eight other spacefaring nations, signed something called The Artemis Accords. The agreement confirms that the space agencies are committed to peaceful exploration; it also provides some legal frameworks around how moon research should be conducted. But according to CNET, Russia and China didn’t sign the Accords, and the agreement also doesn’t “explicitly prohibit the commercialisation of water and other material mined on the moon.”
So… maybe, someday, you’ll be able to quench your thirst using the nectar of Luna for a significant chunk of change, but I’m not holding my breath.