Zeroing In on Water

<chirp, chirp> “Moire here.”

“Hi, Sy, it’s me, Vinnie. I just heard this news story about finding water on the Moon. I thought we did that ten years ago. You even wrote about it.”

“The internet never forgets, does it? That post wasn’t quite right but it wasn’t wrong, either.”

“How can it be both?”

“There’s an old line in Science — ‘Your data’s fine but your conclusions are … nuts.’ They use a different word in private. Suppose you land on a desert island and find a pirate’s treasure chest. Should the headlines say you’d found a treasure?”

“Naw, the chest might be empty or full of rocks or something.”

“Mm-hm. So, going back to that post… I was working from some reports on NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. Its LAMP instrument mapped how strongly different Moon features reflected a particular frequency of ultraviolet light. That frequency’s called ‘Lyman‑alpha.’ Astronomers care about it because it’s part of starlight, it’s reflected by rock, and it’s specifically absorbed by hydrogen atoms. Sure enough, LAMP found some places, typically in deepshadow craters, that absorbed a lot more Lymanalpha than other places.”

“And you wrote about how hydrogen atoms are in water molecules and the Moon’s deep crater floors near the poles are sheltered from sunlight that’d break up water molecules so LAMP’s dark spots are where there’s water. And you liked how using starlight to find water on the Moon was poetical.”

“Uhh… right. All that made a lot of sense at the time and it still might be true. Scientists leapt to the same hopeful conclusion when interpreting data from the MESSENGER mission to Mercury. That one used a neutron spectrometer to map emissions from hydrogen atoms interacting with incoming cosmic rays. There again, the instrument identified hydrogen collected in shaded craters at the planet’s poles. Two different detection methods giving the same positive indication at the same type of sheltered location. The agreement seemed to settle the matter. The problem is that water isn’t geology’s only way or even its primary way to accumulate hydrogen atoms.”

“What else could it be? Hydrogen ions in the solar wind grab oxide ions from Moon rock and you’ve got water, right?”

“But the hydrogens arrive one at a time, not in pairs. Any conversion would have to be at least a two‑step process. The Moon’s surface rocks are mostly silicate minerals. They’re a lattice of negative oxide ions that’s decorated inside with an assortment of positive metal ions. The first step in the conversion would be for one hydrogen ion to link up with a surface oxide to make a hydroxide ion. That species has a minus‑one charge instead of oxide’s minus‑two so it’s a bit less tightly bound to its neighboring metal ions. Got that?”

“Gimme a sec … OK, keep going.”

“Some time later, maybe a century maybe an eon, another hydrogen ion comes close enough to attack our surface hydroxide if it hasn’t been blasted apart by solar UV light. Then you get a water molecule. On balance and looking back, we’d expect most of the surface hydrogen to be hydroxide ions, not water, but both kinds would persist better in shadowed areas.”

“OK, two kinds of hydrogen. But how do we tell the difference?”

“We evaluate processes at lower‑energies. Lyman‑alpha photons pack over 10 electronvolts of energy, enough to seriously disturb an atom and blow a molecule apart. O‑H and H‑O‑H interact differently with light in the infra‑red range that just jiggles molecules instead of bopping them. For instance, atom pairs can stretch in‑out. Different kinds of atom bind together more‑or‑less tightly. That means each kind of atom pair resonates at its own stretch energy, generally around 6 microns or 0.41 electronvolts. NASA’s Cassini mission had a mapping spectrometer that could see down into that range. It found O‑H stretching activity all over the Moon’s surface.”

“But that could be either hydroxyls or water.”

“Exactly. The new news is that sensors aboard NASA’s airborne SOFIA mission map light even deeper into the infra‑red. It found the 3‑micron, 0.21‑electronvolt signal for water’s V‑shape scissors motion. That’s the water that everybody’s excited about.”

“Lots of it?”

“Thinly spread, probably, but stay tuned.”

~~ Rich Olcott

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