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Green Technology and Environmental Science News: Watery Moon



From: Andy Soos, ENN
Published May 10, 2013 09:09 AM

Watery Moon

The dark regions on the Moon were once considered seas full of water. Well that is not true but there is some water on the Moon. Researchers used a multicollector ion microprobe to study hydrogen-deuterium ratios in lunar rock and on Earth. Their conclusion: The Moon’s water did not come from comets but was already present on Earth 4.5 billion years ago, when a giant collision sent material from Earth to form the Moon.

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Lunar water is water that is present on the Moon. Liquid water cannot persist at the Moon's surface, and water vapor is quickly decomposed by sunlight and lost to outer space. However, scientists have since the 1960s conjectured that water ice could survive in cold, permanently shadowed craters at the Moon's poles.

Water can also exist in forms chemically bound to lunar minerals (rather than as free water), and evidence strongly suggests that this is indeed the case in low concentrations over much of the Moon's surface. In fact, adsorbed water is calculated to exist at trace concentrations of 10 to 1000 parts per million.

Water inside the Moon’s mantle came from ancient meteorites, new research finds, the same source thought to have supplied most of the water on Earth. The findings raise new questions about the process that formed the Moon.

The Moon is thought to have formed from a disc of debris left when a giant object hit the Earth 4.5 billion years ago, very early in Earth’s history. Scientists have long assumed that the heat from an impact of that size would cause hydrogen and other volatile elements to boil off into space, meaning the Moon must have started off completely dry. But recently, NASA spacecraft and new research on samples from the Apollo missions have shown that the Moon actually has water, both on its surface and beneath.

By showing that water on the Moon and on Earth came from the same source, this new study offers yet more evidence that the Moon’s water has been there all along.

"The simplest explanation for what we found is that there was water on the proto-Earth at the time of the giant impact," said Alberto Saal, associate professor of Geological Sciences at Brown University and the study’s lead author. "Some of that water survived the impact, and that’s what we see in the Moon."

To find the origin of the Moon’s water, Saal and his colleagues looked at melt inclusions found in samples brought back from the Apollo missions. Melt inclusions are tiny dots of volcanic glass trapped within crystals called olivine. The crystals prevent water escaping during an eruption and enable researchers to get an idea of what the inside of the Moon is like.

Research from 2011 led by Hauri found that the melt inclusions have plenty of water — as much water in fact as lavas forming on the Earth’s ocean floor. This study aimed to find the origin of that water. To do that, Saal and his colleagues looked at the isotopic composition of the hydrogen trapped in the inclusions. "In order to understand the origin of the hydrogen, we needed a fingerprint," Saal said. "What is used as a fingerprint is the isotopic composition."

Using a Cameca NanoSIMS 50L multicollector ion microprobe at Carnegie, the researchers measured the amount of deuterium in the samples compared to the amount of regular hydrogen. Deuterium is an isotope of hydrogen with an extra neutron. Water molecules originating from different places in the solar system have different amounts of deuterium. In general, things formed closer to the sun have less deuterium than things formed farther out.

Saal and his colleagues found that the deuterium/hydrogen ratio in the melt inclusions was relatively low and matched the ratio found in carbonaceous chondrites, meteorites originating in the asteroid belt near Jupiter and thought to be among the oldest objects in the solar system. That means the source of the water on the Moon is primitive meteorites, not comets as some scientists thought.

Comets, like meteorites, are known to carry water and other volatiles, but most comets formed in the far reaches of the solar system in a formation called the Oort Cloud. Because they formed so far from the sun, they tend to have high deuterium/hydrogen ratios.

Recent research, Saal said, has found that as much as 98 percent of the water on Earth also comes from primitive meteorites, suggesting a common source for water on Earth and water on Moon. The easiest way to explain that, Saal says, is that the water was already present on the early Earth and was transferred to the Moon.

The finding is not necessarily inconsistent with the idea that the Moon was formed by a giant impact with the early Earth, but presents a problem. If the Moon is made from material that came from the Earth, it makes sense that the water in both would share a common source. However, there’s still the question of how that water was able to survive such a violent collision.

"Our work suggests that even highly volatile elements may not be lost completely during a giant impact," said Van Orman. "We need to go back to the drawing board and discover more about what giant impacts do, and we also need a better handle on volatile inventories in the Moon."

For further information see Lunar Water.

Moon image via Wikipedia.

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