Moon Shadow

Lunar Ice Discovery Follows Fresh Look at 2008 Data



A three-color composite of radiation from the sun shows water detected at high latitudes of the moon.

How long do the full benefits of a space probe project take to realize? A decade, in the case of a research team based at the University of Hawaii in Manoa. The team applied a fresh analysis to data collected by NASA's Moon Mineralogy Mapper (M3), which launched as part of India's first lunar probe, Chandrayaan 1, in 2008. The findings: definitive evidence for surface-exposed ice in the moon's shadowy polar regions.

This is the first time that direct evidence for lunar water has been discovered, according to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and this discovery could have massive implications for future moon-exploration projects.

Previously, nailing down firm evidence for lunar ice was hampered by the limitations of data gathering in the craters of the moon's shadowy poles. In fact, the M3 data set was of such poor quality that many other researchers had written it off as unusable.

But this didn't deter planetary scientist Shuai Li, whose team tackled the challenge by patiently using traces of sunlight that had bounced off crater walls. They were able to locate areas where specific wavelengths of light were absorbed, indicating the presence of water. The team then developed multiple independent statistical tests to demonstrate that the M3 data's indications of water ice were solid evidence, not just flukes. “This was a really surprising finding,” said Dr. Li. “I was astounded when I looked closer and found such meaningful spectral features in the measurements.”

—Shuai Li, University of Hawaii, Manoa, Hawaii, USA, to The New York Times



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