Story at a glance
- NASA's SOFIA detected water molecules in one of the largest craters visible from Earth.
- While the spacecraft had previously detected water molecules on the lunar surface, this was the first confirmation of water on the sunlit surface.
- Scientists say this suggests water may be more widespread than previously thought.
NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) confirmed water on the sunlit surface of the moon for the first time, indicating that water might not be limited to the dark side of the moon.
“We had indications that H2O – the familiar water we know – might be present on the sunlit side of the Moon,” said Paul Hertz, director of the Astrophysics Division in the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington, in a release. “Now we know it is there. This discovery challenges our understanding of the lunar surface and raises intriguing questions about resources relevant for deep space exploration.”
Water molecules were found in Clavius Crater, one of the largest craters visible from Earth on the Moon! This discovery from our @SOFIAtelescope indicates that water may be distributed across the surface, & not limited to cold, shadowed places. More: https://t.co/oIcCbbl50Y pic.twitter.com/Q5Ve6QwZJM— NASA (@NASA) October 26, 2020
The finding suggests water may not only be present in cold, shadowed parts of the lunar surface, but more distributed.
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“Prior to the SOFIA observations, we knew there was some kind of hydration,” said Casey Honniball, the lead author who published the results from her graduate thesis work at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa in Honolulu. “But we didn’t know how much, if any, was actually water molecules – like we drink every day – or something more like drain cleaner.”
In fact, SOFIA's data revealed water in concentrations of just 100 to 412 parts per million, or about a 12-ounce bottle of water, trapped in a cubic meter of soil in the Clavius Crater, one of the largest craters visible from Earth.
“Without a thick atmosphere, water on the sunlit lunar surface should just be lost to space,” said Honniball, who is now a postdoctoral fellow at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. “Yet somehow we’re seeing it. Something is generating the water, and something must be trapping it there.”
Flying within the Earth's atmosphere, SOFIA is a modified Boeing 747SP jetliner equipped with a 106-inch diameter telescope that can reach above 99 percent of the water vapor to allow for a clearer view of the infrared universe.
“It was, in fact, the first time SOFIA has looked at the Moon, and we weren’t even completely sure if we would get reliable data, but questions about the Moon’s water compelled us to try,” said Naseem Rangwala, SOFIA’s project scientist at NASA's Ames Research Center in California's Silicon Valley. “It’s incredible that this discovery came out of what was essentially a test, and now that we know we can do this, we’re planning more flights to do more observations.”
So what does water look like through FORCAST, SOFIA's telescope? Well, there's actually a specific wavelength (6.1 microns) unique to water molecules, which is what SOFIA detected. For those of you more familiar with astrophysics, the space agency published the full findings in Nature Astronomy. But, for the rest of us, suffice to say that this could potentially change the future of travel to the moon. Artemis, the twin sister of the agency’s Apollo program, aims to send the first woman and next man to the moon in 2024 and establish a “sustainable human presence” on the celestial sphere by the end of this decade.
“Water is a valuable resource, for both scientific purposes and for use by our explorers,” said Jacob Bleacher, chief exploration scientist for NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate. “If we can use the resources at the Moon, then we can carry less water and more equipment to help enable new scientific discoveries.”
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