Scientists hail first unambiguous detection of water on the moon

NASA has confirmed the presence of water on the moon in a breakthrough discovery that could have implications for future human space exploration.

Announced at a special press event on Monday, October 26, the “unambiguous detection of molecular water” was made recently by NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) — essentially a powerful telescope flown on a modified Boeing 747.

Up to now, researchers have suggested that water in the form of ice may exist in shadowy regions of the moon, but this latest discovery confirms for the first time the existence of water on its sunlit surface, indicating that water could be spread across the entirety of the lunar surface rather than limited to places in permanent shade.

“SOFIA detected water molecules (H2O) in Clavius Crater, one of the largest craters visible from Earth, located in the moon’s southern hemisphere,” NASA said in a release. “Previous observations of the moon’s surface detected some form of hydrogen, but were unable to distinguish between water and its close chemical relative, hydroxyl (OH). Data from this location reveal water in concentrations of 100 to 412 parts per million — roughly equivalent to a 12-ounce bottle of water — trapped in a cubic meter of soil spread across the lunar surface.” The findings have been published in the Nature Astronomy journal.

According to NASA, the moon’s water may have been delivered via meteorite impacts or formed by the interaction of energetic particles ejected from the sun.

The space agency said the discovery raises new questions about how water is created and how it persists on the harsh, airless lunar surface. At the same time, the significant find opens up the possibility of astronauts using the water as a resource if and when NASA achieves its goal of building a base on the moon for continuous human habitation, which could serve as a launchpad for missions to Mars and beyond.

“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.”

Scientists believe the water “could be stored inside glass beadlike structures within the soil that can be smaller than the tip of a pencil,” suggesting many hurdles need to be overcome before astronauts can make use of it.

The flying telescope

The SOFIA observatory flies at altitudes of up to 45,000 feet on a modified Boeing 747SP jet. Its 106-inch diameter telescope reaches above 99% of the water vapor in Earth’s atmosphere, enabling it to obtain a clear view of the infrared universe. Using a special infrared camera for the SOFIA Telescope, SOFIA was able to pick up the specific wavelength unique to water molecules, and in the process located “a relatively surprising concentration” in the sunlit Clavius Crater.

“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.”

Next, SOFIA will search for water in additional sunlit locations, and during different lunar phases, to learn more about how the water is produced, stored, and moved across the moon, NASA said.

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