Moon volcanoes may hold future water supply for astronauts

Ancient volcanoes likely created the atmosphere to produce ice sheets.

Have you ever wondered what created the grey and white marble effect on the Moon’s surface? The dark blotches, called maria, are the result of a series of volcanic eruptions that occurred billions of years ago, covering the surface in hot lava.

The remnants of these ancient volcanos may be the key to providing a water source for astronauts in the future.

While the Moon lacks bodies of liquid water, new research from the University of Colorado Boulder (US) has used computer modelling to predict that these volcanos likely left behind huge sheets of ice on the Moon’s poles, which could potentially be several hundred metres thick.

This research, published in The Planetary Science Journal, drew on computer simulations to recreate conditions on the Moon from 2-4 billion of years ago, when tens of thousands of immense volcanoes were erupting. From these models they determined that the ancient Moon volcanoes likely gave out enormous amounts of carbon monoxide and water vapour, which potentially created thin layers of atmosphere that would have lasted long enough (around 2500 years) to form longer-lasting sheets of ice.

Lunar, moon, volcano, water, ice sheets, astronaut
Volcanic outgassing is balanced against atmospheric escape to space and surface ice formation, assuming a well-mixed atmosphere. Credit: Wilcoski et al. 2022/The Planetary Science Journal

“The atmospheres escaped over about 1,000 years, so there was plenty of time for ice to form,” says Andrew Wilcoski, lead author. “We envision it as a frost on the Moon that built up over time.”

According to the model’s estimates, roughly 41% of the water vapour from the volcanoes could have condensed into ice on the Moon’s surface, and may now be concealed within craters, waiting to be discovered. This is over eight trillion tonnes of ice.

“It’s a potential bounty for future Moon explorers who will need water to drink and process into rocket fuel,” says co-author Paul Hayne. “It’s possible that 5 or 10 metres below the surface you have big sheets of ice.”

This lunar ice may be difficult to uncover, as it’s likely buried under several metres of lunar dust. But now that we know where it might be, all we have to do is start digging.

Hunting out water on the moon pillars
A map of possible water beneath the surface of the Moon’s South Pole, based on temperature data from NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. Credit: European Space Agency (ESA)

Interested in having science explained? Listen to our new podcast.

Qamariya Nasrullah

Qamariya Nasrullah

Qamariya Nasrullah holds a PhD in evolutionary development from Monash University and an Honours degree in palaeontology from Flinders University.

Read science facts, not fiction...

There’s never been a more important time to explain the facts, cherish evidence-based knowledge and to showcase the latest scientific, technological and engineering breakthroughs. Cosmos is published by The Royal Institution of Australia, a charity dedicated to connecting people with the world of science. Financial contributions, however big or small, help us provide access to trusted science information at a time when the world needs it most. Please support us by making a donation or purchasing a subscription today.