A recent study by Chinese scientists has identified tiny glass beads in the lunar soil as potential storage locations for water on the Moon. Despite previous research confirming the presence of water on the Moon, questions have remained about where it is stored, how it got there, and how it moves around. The new findings are based on samples collected by China’s Chang’e 5 rover mission, which spent a couple of weeks collecting material from the lunar surface in December.
Microscopic glass beads in the lunar soil are formed when bits of space rock collide with the lunar surface, vaporizing minerals that then cool into vitreous particles, sometimes only a few tens or hundreds of micrometers across. These glass beads have been previously studied in Apollo lunar samples and have helped overturn prior assumptions about the dryness of the Moon.
The new study reveals that a good proportion of the Moon’s water is produced with the help of the Sun’s winds, which bond hydrogen ions from solar particles with oxygen already stored in the lunar soil. The researchers believe that the reservoir of water potentially represented by these beads could play a crucial part in the lunar water cycle, as some water gets lost to space and can be replenished by the stores held in the amorphous impact glass.
“The impact glass beads preserve hydration signatures and display water abundance profiles consistent with the inward diffusion of solar wind-derived water,” says the study’s researchers in their recently published paper in Nature Geoscience.
Each glass bead is capable of holding up to 2,000 micrograms (0.002 grams) of water for every gram of the particle’s mass. Based on a hydration signatures analysis, the scientists think the beads can accumulate water in the span of just a few years.
“This short diffusion time indicates that the solar wind-derived water can be rapidly accumulated and stored in lunar impact glass beads,” adds the research team.
The potential implications of these findings are significant, especially for supporting Moon missions and bases. Being able to tap into this vast reservoir of water could make living on the lunar surface for extended periods of time much more comfortable. Moreover, the scientists say that other “airless bodies” like the Moon could be storing water in their surface layers in the same way.
“These findings indicate that the impact glasses on the surface of the Moon and other airless bodies in the Solar System are capable of storing solar wind-derived water and releasing it into space,” says Hu Sen, a geophysicist and study co-author from the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
Further analysis of samples from Chang’e 5 is expected to yield more discoveries along these lines. With these new insights, we may be able to unlock the mysteries surrounding the lunar water cycle and how it could impact future space exploration and habitation.
The research has been published in Nature Geoscience.
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