In September 2009, after decades of speculation, evidence of water on the surface of the Moon was discovered for the first time. Chandrayaan-1, a lunar probe launched by India’s space agency, had created a detailed map of the minerals that make up the Moon’s surface and analysts determined that, in several places, the characteristics of lunar rocks indicated that they bore as much 600 million metric tonnes of water.
In the years since, we’ve seen further evidence of water both on the surface and within the interior of the Moon, locked within the pore space of rocks and perhaps even frozen in ice sheets. All this has gotten space exploration enthusiasts pretty excited, as the presence of frozen water could someday make permanent human habitation of the Moon much more feasible.
For planetary scientists, though, it’s raised a knotty question: How did water arrive on the Moon in the first place?
A new paper published today in Science suggests that, unlikely as it may seem, the Moon’s water originated from the same source as the water that comes out of the faucet when you open a tap. Just as many scientists believe the Earth’s entire supply of water was initially delivered via water-bearing meteorites that traveled from the asteroid belt billions of years ago, a new analysis of lunar volcanic rocks brought back during the Apollo missions indicates the Moon’s water has its roots in these same meteorites. But there’s a twist: Before reaching the Moon, this lunar water was first on Earth.
The research team, led by Alberto Saal of Brown University, analyzed the isotopic composition of hydrogen found in water within tiny bubbles of volcanic glass (supercooled lava) as well as melt inclusions (blobs of melted material trapped in slowly cooling magma that later solidified) in the Apollo-era rocks, as shown in the image above. Specifically, they looked at the ratio of deuterium isotopes (“heavy” hydrogen atoms that contain an added neutron) to normal hydrogen atoms.
Previously, scientists have found that in water, this ratio changes depending on where in the solar system the water molecules initially formed, as water that originated closer to the Sun has less deuterium than water formed further away. The water locked in the lunar glass and melt inclusions was found to have deuterium levels similar to that found in a class of meteorites called carbonaceous chondrites, which scientists believe to be the most unaltered remnants of the nebula from which the solar system formed. Carbonaceous chondrites that fall to Earth originate in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.
Higher deuterium levels would have suggested that water was first brought on to the Moon by comets—as many scientists have hypothesized—because comets largely come from the Kuiper belt and Oort Cloud, remote regions far beyond Neptune where deuterium is more plentiful. But if the water in these samples represents lunar water as a whole, the findings indicate that the water came from a much closer source—in fact, the same source as the water on Earth.
The simplest explanation for this similarity would be a scenario in which, when a massive collision between a young Earth and a Mars-sized proto-planet formed the Moon some 4.5 billion years ago, some of the liquid water on our planet was somehow preserved from vaporization and transferred along with the solid material that would become the Moon.
Our current understanding of massive impacts, though, doesn’t allow for this possibility: The heat we believe would be generated by such an enormous collision would theoretically vaporize all lunar water and send it off into space in a gaseous form. But there are a few other scenarios that might explain how water was transferred from our proto-Earth to the Moon in other forms.
One possibility, the researchers speculate, is that the early Moon borrowed a bit of Earth’s high-temperature atmosphere the instant it formed, so any water that had been locked in the chemical composition of Earth rocks pre-impact would have vaporized along with the rock into this shared atmosphere after impact; this vapor would have then coalesced into a solid lunar blob, binding the water into the chemical composition of lunar material. Another possibility is that the rocky chunk of Earth was kicked off to form the Moon retained the water molecules locked inside its chemical composition, and later on, these were released as a result of radioactive heating inside the Moon’s interior.
Evidence from recent lunar missions suggests that lunar rocks—not just craters at the poles—indeed contain substantial amounts of water, and this new analysis suggests that water originally came from Earth. So the findings will force scientists to rethink models of how the Moon could have formed, given that it clearly didn’t dry out completely.