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Water on the moon: How much?

Ron Cowen reports from the annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society’s Division for Planetary Sciences

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It feels strange to take a funicular to a planetary science meeting. But it’s a steep walk up from the hotel rooms near the sea, and there are no steps, so here at the El Conquistador Hotel in Fajardo, Puerto Rico, I take a slowly climbing tram to the annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society’s Division for Planetary Sciences.

It is damp — humid — outside and in one of the large, darkened meeting halls, Carle Pieters of Brown University is talking about dampness on Earth’s moon.

Her team’s main findings that water permeates the lunar surface come from three spectrometers on three different spacecraft — Cassini, Deep Impact and Chandrayaan-I — were published online September 24 in Science and were reported in Science News.

“So how much water is on the surface?” someone in the audience asks Pieters. For now, she says, the answer depends on who you ask. Quantifying the amount is highly model dependent but, she says, “regardless, it’s not a lot of water; it’s not a wet surface but it has water and OH [the hydroxyl radical] on it,” she says. “It’s drier than the driest desert.”

Roger Clark of the U.S. Geological Survey in Denver says there’s some water even on the moon’s equator and he estimates that the concentration of water on the lunar surface could be anywhere between 10 and 1000 parts per million. But he suggests that some of the variations in the water concentration seen by the Deep Impact spacecraft may be due to the craft’s viewing angle, rather than to interactions between the lunar surface and hydrogen carried by the solar wind, as Deep Impact researchers have suggested.

Deep Impact’s Jessica Sunshine of the University of Maryland in College Park disagrees. And if there’s water on the surface of the moon, due to interaction with the solar wind, there ought to be water on Mercury, the solar system’s hottest planet, and even on asteroids, she asserts.

Amid the controversy, one question that does have an answer, says Sunshine, is: How many spacecraft do you need to prove there’s water on the moon?


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Science for science writers

Science News blogs from Austin, Texas, where the 47th annual New Horizons in Science meeting is taking place. Freelance Laura Beil describes how Skip Garner began his accidental journey into scientific misconduct investigation after he developed a computer program that could, as he put it, “help a physicist understand medicine,” he told writers in the audience at the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing symposium. Got milk tolerance? Your ability to digest lactose as an adult is relatively new in the human species. And, said John Hawks of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, provides evidence of rapid evolution over the past 10,000 years, Elizabeth Quill reports in this blog from the meeting. Virgil Griffith’s life goal is “to create a machine who feels.” Griffith, a doctoral student at Caltech, isn’t the only one. During his talk, he revealed that turning people into cyborgs is the secret passion of many of his Caltech peers, Rachel Ehrenberg reports. (They contend that they are working on implant devices for the injured bodies of people like Vietnam vets, says Griffith, but if you get them drunk they’ll confess that the real aim is to make cyborgs of us all.) Also, blogging from: Eva Emerson on some new results on longevity without caloric restriction in yeast; freelance Susan Gaidos on a Boston University medical statistician who has devoted lots of time to studying errors in the voting process, and says things can, and do, routinely go wrong; and Lisa Grossman on how mapping fossil fuel emissions may help scientists find where carbon is hiding in the biosphere.

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More science for science writers

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