Hoppin’ water molecules

chladny-2Before you get any further in this post, follow this link to Steve Mould’s demonstration of  Chladni figures.  (I’ll wait here.)  It’s a neat demo and the effect plays into some recent discoveries in planetary science.

Steve’s couscous grains dance to the vibrations of the iron plate they’re sitting on.  The patterns happen because he controls where those vibrations happen.  Or more importantly, don’t happen (see his fingers pinching the plate?).

The study of vibration goes back to Pythagoras, the ancient Greek geek who determined that a plucked stretched string invariably exhibits a whole number of peaks and nodes.  (A node is a point on the string that doesn’t move, like those dots on the chart).  I’m so tempted to yammer about the relationship between nodes and quantum mechanics, but I’ve already posted on that topic.sines

The important point for this post is that Steve’s demonstration shows individual particles, each moving under the influence of random impacts, nonetheless winding up at a common destination.  They’re repeatedly kicked away from points where the iron plate is fluctuating strongly.  If a particle suddenly finds itself on a non-fluctuating nodal point (or nodal line, which is just a collection of nodal points), it stays there because why not?

The basic principle applies to numerous phenomena in Physics, Chemistry and other Sciences.  The particles in Chladni’s experiment were grains of sand.  Steve used coucous grains, which work better in video.  But they could also be molecules.  On the Moon.

Back in the 2000s there was intense debate in the lunar astronomy community.  One argument went, “The Solar Wind teems with hydrogen ions (H+).  The Moon’s surface rocks are mostly silicon oxides.  Those H+ ions will yank oxygen O2- ions off exposed rocks to make H2O molecules.  There has to be water on the Moon!”

The other side of the argument (in real Science there’s always at least one other side) went, “Maybe so, but Solar radiation also contains high-energy electrons and photons that’ll rip those molecules apart.  Water can’t survive up there!”

If/when we plant a Moon colony, the colonists will need water.  Either it gets shipped up from Earth — EXPENSIVE — or we find and mine water up there.  NASA did the only thing that could be done — they sent up a spacecraft for a close look.   When the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (the LRO) launched in 2009 it carried half-a-dozen instruments.  One of them was the Lyman Alpha Mapping Project (LAMP) camera.

LAMP was the embodiment of a sly trick.  Buried in starlight’s ultraviolet spectrum are photons (a.k.a. Lyman-α  light) with a wavelength of 121.6 nanometers.  They’re generated by excited hydrogen atoms and they’re (mostly) absorbed by hydrogen atoms but reflected by rock that doesn’t contain hydrogen.

LAMP’s camera was designed to be sensitive to just those Lyman-α photons.  As LRO circled the Moon, the LAMP camera recorded what fraction of those special photons was bouncing off the Moon.  By subtraction, it told us  what fraction was being absorbed by surface hydrogen.

LAMP did find water.  The fun facts are its form and location — it was frost, buried in “fluffy soils” in the walls of craters.
water-moonThis photo, part of the LAMP exhibit at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, shows why.  It’s a model of a cratered Moon lit by sunlight.

An H2O molecule may develop anywhere on the Moon’s surface.  Then it experiences life’s usual slings and arrows (well, electrons and photons) that might blast it apart or might merely give it a kinetic kick to somewhere else.  That process continues until the molecule or a descendant drops into a nice shady crater.

The best craters would be the ones in the polar regions, where sunlight arrives at a low angle and the crater walls are permanently shadowed like the one at the top in the model.  That’s exactly were LAMP found the most dark spots.  HAH —  Chladni in space!

But there’s more.  In 2012, NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft produced evidence for water on Mercury, the hottest planet in the Solar System.  Once again, those molecules were hiding in polar craters along with a few other surprising molecular species.  That knocked my socks off when I read the scientific report.

~~ Rich Olcott

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