China discovers strange glass beads on moon that may contain billions of tons of water

Scientists examined earth samples returned by China's Chang'e-5 expedition and discovered water encased in glass spherules on the moon.

According to a new study, Chinese researchers may have found billions of tons of water inside strange glass spheres buried on the moon. These spheres could one day serve as a water source for moon bases.

The new analysis, which was published on March 28 in the journal Nature Geoscience, suggests that the tiny glass spherules, which were found in lunar soil samples and will be returned to Earth by China's Chang'e-5 mission in December 2020, may be so numerous that they can hold up to 330 billion tons (300 billion metric tons) of water across the moon's surface.

When meteors strike the moon at speeds of tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of kilometers per hour, shattering pieces of the lunar crust into the air, glass spherules, also known as impact glasses or microtektites, develop. Silicate minerals heated to molten temps by the power of the collision join inside these aerial clouds to form microscopic glass beads that are dispersed over the nearby terrain like crumbs.

The dirt of the moon includes oxygen, so the beads also do. The oxygen in the molten orbs reacts to produce water that is drawn into the silicate chambers when it comes into contact with ionized hydrogen ions (protons) from the solar wind. Some of the orbs eventually get covered under regolith, the lunar dust particles, and become imprisoned underground with the water still inside.

The water is released by some of these beads into the moon's atmosphere and onto its surface at the proper temps, serving as a reservoir that is gradually replenished over time, according to the experts. For space organizations like NASA and the China National Space Administration (CNSA) who want to establish bases on the moon, this could make these spheres a perfect supply of water as well as hydrogen and oxygen. The CSNSA anticipates finishing its lunar base mission as early as 2029.

According to study co-author Sen Hu, a planetary geologist at the Institute of Geology and Geophysics of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, "if we want to extract the water in impact glass beads for future lunar exploration, we first collect them, then boil them in an oven and cool the released water vapor, then you will get some liquid water in a bottle." Another advantage is the prevalence of impact glass fragments in lunar soils, which occur uniformly and worldwide from east to west and from equator to pole.

The fifth in a series of missions designed to lay the groundwork for future manned moon landings, China's Chang'e 5 mission was named after a Chinese goddess of the moon. Before returning to Earth in December 2020, the expedition made a landing on the moon and began collecting debris from its surface.