Thursday, June 17, 2010

Research Suggests Water Content of Moon's Interior Underestimated

Earthrise as seen from Apollo 8.NASA - funded scientists estimate from recent research that the volume of water molecules locked inside minerals in the moon’s interior could exceed the amount of water in the Great Lakes here on Earth.

Scientists at the Carnegie Institution’s Geophysical Laboratory in Washington, along with other scientists across the nation, determined that the water was likely present very early in the moon’s formation history as hot magma started to cool and crystallize. This finding means water is native to the moon.

“For over 40 years we thought the moon was dry,” said Francis McCubbin of Carnegie and lead author of the report published in Monday's Online Early Edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “In our study we looked at hydroxyl, a compound with an oxygen atom bound with hydrogen, and apatite, a water-bearing mineral in the assemblage of minerals we examined in two Apollo samples and a lunar meteorite.”

McCubbin’s team utilized tests which detect elements in the parts per billion range. Combining their measurements with models that characterize how the material crystallized as the moon cooled during formation, they found that the minimum water content ranged from 64 parts per billion to 5 parts per million. The result is at least two orders of magnitude greater than previous results from lunar samples that estimated water content of the moon to be less than 1 parts per billion.

"In this case, when we talk about water on the moon, we mean water in the structural form hydroxyl,” said Jim Green, director of the Planetary Science Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “This is a very minor component of the rocks that make up the lunar interior.”

The origin of the moon is now commonly believed to be the result of a Mars-sized object that impacted the Earth 4.5 billion years ago. This impact put a large amount of material into Earth’s orbit that ultimately compacted to form the moon. The lunar magma ocean that is thought to have formed at some point during the compacting process, began to cool. During this cooling, water either escaped or was preserved as hydroxyl molecules in the crystallizing minerals.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

NASA Rover Finds Clue to Mars' Past And Environment for Life

Rocks examined by NASA's Spirit Mars Rover hold evidence of a wet, non-acidic ancient environment that may have been favorable for life. Confirming this mineral clue took four years of analysis by several scientists.

An outcrop that Spirit examined in late 2005 revealed high concentrations of carbonate, which originates in wet, near-neutral conditions, but dissolves in acid. The ancient water indicated by this find was not acidic.

NASA's rovers have found other evidence of formerly wet Martian environments. However the data for those environments indicate conditions that may have been acidic. In other cases, the conditions were definitely acidic, and therefore less favorable as habitats for life.

Laboratory tests helped confirm the carbonate identification. The findings were published online Thursday, June 3 by the journal Science.

"This is one of the most significant findings by the rovers," said Steve Squyres of Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. Squyres is principal investigator for the Mars twin rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, and a co-author of the new report. "A substantial carbonate deposit in a Mars outcrop tells us that conditions that could have been quite favorable for life were present at one time in that place. "

Spirit inspected rock outcrops, including one scientists called Comanche, along the rover's route from the top of Husband Hill to the vicinity of the Home Plate plateau which Spirit has studied since 2006. Magnesium iron carbonate makes up about one-fourth of the measured volume in Comanche. That is a tenfold higher concentration than any previously identified for carbonate in a Martian rock.

"We used detective work combining results from three spectrometers to lock this down," said Dick Morris, lead author of the report and a member of a rover science team at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston."The instruments gave us multiple, interlocking ways of confirming the magnesium iron carbonate, with a good handle on how much there is."

Massive carbonate deposits on Mars have been sought for years without much success. Numerous channels apparently carved by flows of liquid water on ancient Mars suggest the planet was formerly warmer, thanks to greenhouse warming from a thicker atmosphere than exists now. The ancient, dense Martian atmosphere was probably rich in carbon dioxide, because that gas makes up nearly all the modern, very thin atmosphere.

It is important to determine where most of the carbon dioxide went. Some theorize it departed to space. Others hypothesize that it left the atmosphere by the mixing of carbon dioxide with water under conditions that led to forming carbonate minerals. That possibility, plus finding small amounts of carbonate in meteorites that originated from Mars, led to expectations in the 1990s that carbonate would be abundant on Mars. However, mineral-mapping spectrometers on orbiters since then have found evidence of localized carbonate deposits in only one area, plus small amounts distributed globally in Martian dust.