'Damp squib', 'exciting new discovery' or both? What NASA's big moon reveal really means

Five days ago when NASA said it had an "exciting new discovery" about the moon to announce, speculation on what it could be went into overdrive.

But while the big reveal on Tuesday morning (NZ time) has been described as "a big deal", "quite remarkable" and "significant", one prominent Kiwi scientist says there's been "a fair bit of private eye-rolling" behind the scenes, criticising the "shenanigans" that got the story onto the front pages of news sites around the world.

So what have scientists found out? Firstly, they've confirmed there is water in spots all over the moon, even in sunlit areas - perhaps held inside or between grains of soil. 

"This finding suggests getting water from the lunar surface might be a simple as grinding it up to get water," said University of Auckland associate professor of physics Jan J Eldridge.

Secondly, water could be found in large reservoirs in places which are in permanent shadow - there could be up to 40,000 square kilometres of the moon - an area about eight times larger than the Auckland Region.

"One can think of these as being similar to ice patches experienced on the road in the shadows after a frosty night: where the early Sun has melted and dried the tarmac, all is good… but you come around a corner into a shaded section and the surface is treacherous," said Duncan Steel, a Nelson-based astronomer who's worked for NASA and the European Space Agency in the past. 

The upshot of these findings is, in the words of University of Auckland astrobiologist Kathy Campbell, we "might have a new petrol station on the moon to go to Mars".

"You cannot take propellants like rocket fuel up to the moon and move on from there - because it's just too heavy. You can't get out of Earth's gravity," she told The AM Show on Tuesday.

"If you can make it in situ - in place - then you've got a resource you can actually make on the moon. It's a launchpad, it's a gateway."

Kathy Campbell on The AM Show.
Kathy Campbell on The AM Show. Photo credit: The AM Show

About 90 percent of a rocket launch's weight is fuel - the retired space shuttles for example used 5000kg of fuel every second during liftoff in order to generate the speed needed to escape Earth's gravity. It's just not feasible to take more for future trips. 

"Transporting the necessary water from Earth would be hugely expensive, because we are in a gravity well, whereas the gravity of the Moon is only one-sixth as strong," said Dr Steel.

But NASA and the journal which published the research, Nature Astronomy, have been accused of running a "hype machine" with their handling of the announcement, says the head of the University of Auckland's physics department, Richard Easther. 

"These are exciting results which add to our knowledge of the Moon and may help shape plans for human activity on the lunar surface in the coming decade. However, they will probably be seen by many people as significant but ultimately incremental advances, rather than breakthrough news," he said.

"Given the buildup, people could be forgiven for thinking that the whole thing is a damp squib.

He said the journal's owner, Springer Nature, "frequently operates this sort of media circus".

"There is always the risk of scientists being tempted to over-hype their work in order to meet the threshold for inclusion in its pages," Dr Easther said, pointing to a recent paper published in Nature Astronomy which claimed to have found evidence of a gas linked to biological processes on Venus.  

"Much of this excitement has unraveled in recent days, with doubt being cast on both the validity of the identification of phosphine itself, and the interpretation of the results."

Also, he said the telescope used to make some of the discoveries - SOFIA - is "under pressure to demonstrate results as it was recently the subject of a damning review which slated its cost-effectiveness and impact", suggesting its managers might have had financial motives to hype the latest findings.

"My own take is that these shenanigans are ultimately bad for science. The whole “news about the moon” has been greeted with a fair bit of private eye-rolling from colleagues. A sequence of media-friendly sugar hits about big discoveries that are tentative or over-sold cost risks distorting the public understanding of the way progress in science actually takes place - there are few genuine “eureka moments”, and consensus often swings back and forth several times as new knowledge is verified.

"Just to reiterate - these results look like solid, interesting and important work. But the media fanfare is overcooked."