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Friday, November 13, 2009

The Moon - A New Look


 Can You Understand the Slow Pull of the Moon?

As you read this, the moon is moving away from us. Each year, the moon steals some of Earth's rotational energy, and uses it to propel itself about 1.6 inches (4 centimeters) higher in its orbit orbit.(, "Top 10 Amazing Moon Facts")

Meanwhile, Earth's rotation rate is slowing down -- our days are getting longer and longer (by about 1.5 milliseconds every century). Eventually, our planet's tidal bulges will be assembled along an imaginary line running through the centers of both Earth and the moon, and our planetary rotational change will pretty much cease. Earth's day will be a month long. When this happens, billions of years from now, the terrestrial month will be longer -- about 40 of our current days -- because during all this time the moon will continue moving away.

The average person says, "So what? I'll be dead and gone and this nonsense doesn't really concern me." But does new data and information about the moon help reveal the future of Earth and mankind? One thing is certain. New facts are being collected and studied by scientists as our conception of the moon requires change. Today a change in the way we view our moon has become official.

Water And the Moon

In ancient times, observers commonly thought the moon had abundant water--in fact, the great lava plains like Mare Imbrium were called maria, or seas. But when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon in 1969, they stepped out not into the water of the Sea of Tranquillity, but onto basaltic rock.

It's been 35 years since we first set foot on the moon. Now ambitious eyes once again look toward our satellite not just as a place to visit, but as a place to live.

CNN reported today (November 13, 2009) that NASA has discovered water on the moon, possibly opening "a new chapter" that could allow for the development of a lunar space station. Project scientist Anthony Colaprete announced, "I'm here today to tell you that indeed, yes, we found water. And we didn't find just a little bit; we found a significant amount" -- about a dozen, two-gallon bucketfuls, he said, holding up several white plastic containers. This find counters the long-held belief that Earth's satellite is bone dry.

 The LCROSS Mission

NASA's Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite, or LCROSS, last month slammed into one of moon's permanently shadowed craters near the south pole to study whether ice was buried underneath. The mission comprised two moon shots: first, an empty rocket hull slammed into the Cabeus crater; then, a shepherding spacecraft recorded the drama live before it also crashed into the same spot four minutes later. (CBS News,, November 13 2009)

Though scientists were overjoyed with vast amount of data beamed back to Earth, the mission was a public relations dud. Space enthusiasts who stayed up all night to watch the spectacle did not see the promised debris plume in the initial images.

So, the mission was criticized by many, but the cost of LCROSS was about $79 million—cheap in the spaceflight world—and its planners delivered it on budget and on time. (Joe Pappalardo, Popular Mechanics, September 11 2009) The engineers adapted available parts and technology for their craft: commandeering an empty fuel tank for its mass, crafting an internal fuel tank from a communications satellite and copying avionics from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, which is to be delivered into the lunar orbit on the same ride as LCROSS. 

Many space missions leave people scratching their heads. Sometimes the science is obscure, or simply a preparation for some other event that may or may not occur in some future decade. Finding water on the moon may be such a precursor to moon settlements. Will it be a monumental step to new discovery of the universe? Time will tell.

Dr. Chris Welch, astronautics and space systems expert at Kingston University in London, stated this about the possible future use of the moon water, "(It is...a potential reservoir that could be used for drinking or to make into hydrogen and oxygen which could be used as rocket propellant. Also, of course, we could use the oxygen to breathe.” (Nancy Atkinson,, September 24 2009)

Not Dad's Moon 

"This is not your father's moon," said Greg Delory of the University of California, Berkeley, who was not part of the research. "Rather than a dead and unchanging world, it could in fact be a very dynamic and interesting one."

Delory said the next focus should be to figure out where the water comes from and how much of it there is.

Anne Minard of National Geographic News (July 9, 2008) reported, "Most astronomers believe a rogue planet collided with Earth about 4.5 billion years ago. The impact sent molten debris into orbit around Earth, some of which coalesced to form the moon." Under this scenario, the heat of the impact should have vaporized light elements, including the hydrogen necessary for water to form.

Water may have been delivered to the Moon over geological timescales by the regular bombardment of water-bearing comets, asteroids and meteoroids, or continuously produced in-situ ("in the place") by the hydrogen ions (protons) of the solar wind impacting oxygen-bearing minerals. (NASA, "Lunar Prospector," October 2 2001)

"We're unlocking the mysteries of our nearest neighbor and, by extension, the solar system," said Michael Wargo, chief lunar scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "The moon harbors many secrets, and LCROSS has added a new layer to our understanding." (Orlando Sentinel, "The Write Stuff," November 13 2009)

Scientists long have speculated about the source of significant quantities of hydrogen that have been observed at the lunar poles. The discovery of water, which could be more widespread and in greater quantity than previously suspected, sheds new light on the history of heavenly bodies.

If the water that was formed or deposited is billions of years old, these polar cold traps could hold a key to the history and evolution of the solar system, much as an ice core sample taken on Earth reveals ancient data. In addition, water and other compounds represent potential resources that could sustain future lunar exploration.

Whose Water Is It, Anyway?

The discovery of usable quantities of water on the Moon may raise legal questions about who owns the water and who has the right to exploit it. The United Nations Outer Space Treaty, which has been ratified by most space-faring nations, does not prevent the exploitation of lunar resources, but does prevent the appropriation of the Moon by individual nations and is generally interpreted as barring countries from claiming ownership of in-situ resources.
(, "Moon Water: A Trickle of Data and a Flood of Questions," March 6 2006)

The next time you stare at the moon, you may just feel a little different. Maybe you won't find condos on an ocean resort there; however, water has been confirmed. You may just see the moon as a child with a sense of wonder.

Child Moon by Carl Sandburg
The child's wonder
At the old moon
Comes back nightly.
She points her finger
To the far silent yellow thing
Shining through the branches
Filtering on the leaves a golden sand,
Crying with her little tongue, "See the moon!"
And in her bed fading to sleep
With babblings of the moon on her little mouth. 

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