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