Chinese researchers have discovered billions of tonnes of water inside glass spheres buried on the Moon. The discovery is interesting in light of its potential use as a water source for future lunar bases, as suggested by a new study published in Nature (ref.).
The discovery of Chang’e-5
Tiny glass spheres, was collected from lunar soil samples by the Chinese Chang’e-5 mission in December 2020. Could be so abundant as to store up to 330 billion tonnes of water on the lunar surface. Glass spheres, also known as impact glasses or microtektites, form when meteorites crash into the Moon. Silicate minerals heated to high temperatures by the force of impact combine to form tiny glass beads that are scattered like crumbs over the surrounding landscape.
The Moon’s soil contains oxygen, which means that the glass spheres also contain it. When these are hit by protons from the solar wind, the oxygen reacts to form water that is trapped in these silicate capsules. At the right temperatures, some of these glass spheres release water into the lunar atmosphere and on its surface, acting as tanks.
These glass spheres would be an ideal source of water, hydrogen and oxygen on the Moon. Both NASA and the China National Space Administration (CNSA) are very interested in this discovery. CNSA plans to complete its lunar base project around 2029.
Water production on the Moon
“If we want to extract water from impact glass spheres for future lunar exploration, we first need to collect them. Once brought to the boiling point in an oven, we cool them down and extract the released water vapor” said co-author Sen Hu, a planetary geologist at the Institute of Geology and Geophysics of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
“Another advantage is that impact glass beads are common in lunar soils, from the equator to the poles and from east to west”. The Chinese Chang’e-5 mission, named after a Chinese goddess of the Moon, was the fifth in a series of missions aimed at laying the groundwork for future human landings on the lunar surface. The mission landed on the Moon to collect material from its surface before returning to Earth in December 2020.