Water galore on Moon and Mars

Two major discoveries revealed today may have made it a lot easier for humans to leave Earth and establish new colonies on the Moon and Mars.

Water ice on Mars
Two HiRise images show how water ice exposed by  recent meteor impact swiftly vaporised.  Image credit: NASA

In a sensational announcement, NASA announced that there are vast quantities of water on the Moon, which has always been considered an arid world.

A second discovery revealed that water ice exists at mid-latitudes on Mars. This is much further from the poles and closer to the equator than water was previously thought to lie and means there should be supplies for human explorers to drink.

The new martian ice was detected by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter probe which spotted the ice in craters produced by recent meteorite impacts on the red planet.

The discovery delighted space scientists still reeling from the revelation that water is widespread on the Moon. There are no lakes or rivers -the lunar soil, or regolith, is still drier than any desert on Earth.

But the evidence from three space probes shows that as much as a litre (or quart) or water could be extracted from every tonne (ton) of dirt.

That may not sound much. Indeed, water would still be an extremely precious commodity. But processing plants would be able to produce enough water to maintain a colony on the Moon without the far more costly option of delivering water in blocks of ice from Earth.

Apart from giving lunar colonists water to drink, the supplies could irrigate plants in special greenhouses growing vegetables for the humans to eat. Evidence suggests that lunar soil would supply the nutrients needed for some plants.

European Space Agency scientist Bernard Foing led a team that discovered that marigolds are suited to growing in lunar soil without extra nutrients. Russian scientists have discovered that certain vegetables can survive the lunar cycle of much longer days and nights.

But lunar gardeners could also use artificial light to produce a familiar day-night rhythm for vegetables being grown for the first human colonists.

The existence of water molecules was revealed by a sensitive NASA spectrometer aboard India’s Chandrayaan-1 probe to the Moon. This produced a colour map of the surface indicating the chemical make-up.

The result showed the presence of both water and a closely related molecule called hydroxyl, which contains just one atom of hydrogen to an atom of oxygen, all over the Moon’s surface.

The water is believed to be produced when a radiation from the Sun, called the solar wind, batters the Moon. This contains hydrogen which reacts with oxygen in the lunar rocks.

The Indian probe’s findings confirmed results previously indicated by two NASA missions that glanced at the Moon as they flew past to other targets – Cassini and Deep Impact.

It had been thought that some water ice might be trapped in the eternal shadows of some craters near the Moon’s south pole. On October 9, a NASA probe, called LCROSS, will bomb the moon, near its south pole, to look for more signs of the lunar water in the blast debris.

As space scientists celebrated the discovery of water on the Moon, NASA announced that there is much more of it on Mars too.

An orbiting probe has revealed that water ice exists at mid-latitudes on the Red Planet. This is much further from the poles and closer to the equator than water was previously thought to lie.

It means there should be ample supplies for human explorers to tap into wherever they land.

The new martian ice was detected by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter probe. Its HiRise camera spotted it shining brightly in craters up to 8ft deep produced by recent meteorite impacts on the red planet. Scientists were amazed at how pure it turned out to be. The ice swiftly evaporated – or more correctly sublimated – after being exposed to the thin martian air.

Investigator Shane Byrne of the University of Arizona said: ““We knew there was ice below the surface at high latitudes of Mars, but we find that it extends far closer to the equator than you would think, based on Mars’ climate today.

”This ice is a relic of a more humid climate from perhaps just several thousand years ago.”

• Discover space for yourself and do fun science with a telescope. Here is Skymania’s advice on how to choose a telescope. We also have a guide to the different types of telescope available.

Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.
Paul Sutherland

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Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

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