In a jaw-dropping announcement on Monday afternoon, NASA scientists disclosed that for the first time, water has been discovered on the surface of the Moon.
As a result of data collected by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, scientists were able to confirm their theory that there is water on the sunlit surface of the moon. This may help enable further missions to the Moon, including the “Artemis” project, and help make life there possible in the future.
As part of their presentation on Monday, NASA scientists released their first- ever “road map’ of the Moon, showing where the water molecules are located, the fruit of the orbiter that has been making its way around Earth’s satellite since 2009.
Additional information for the astonishing finding was provided by an airborne telescope from NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, or SOFIA. This platform is a refitted Boeing 747SP aircraft that has been altered to house a gigantic 2.7- meter telescope.
For the first time, SOFIA was able to show that actual molecular water, not crystals or molecular components of water, existed on the Moon’s surface.
Paul Herz, the director of astropyisucs division at NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, announced to the media “For the first time, water has been confirmed to be present on the sunlit surface of the moon.”
“We had indications that H2O — the familiar water we know — might be present on the sunlit side of the moon. 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,” Herz explained.
Past missions and research had indeed shown that there may be water on the South Pole of the Moon, at the surface. However, the particular signature of actual water at the wavelength used at that time showed that there was a possibility that it could have been hydroxyl, or oxygen bonded with hydrogen.
Hydroxyl is a chemical used in drain cleaner. However, SOFIA’s research shows for the first time that actual H20 exists on the Moon’s surface — although it is trapped in glass beads or in between individual grains of silt in the high southern latitudes of the heavenly body, in the area known as “Clavius Crater.”
Visible from Earth, Clavius provides an environment which allows water to exist there at the concentration of 100 to 400 parts per million — which, according the NASA scientists, is equivalent to a 12-ounce bottle of the precious fluid.
Casey Honniball, the author of the study which proved the findings, told the press “Prior to the SOFIA observations, we knew there was some kind of hydration. But we didn’t know how much, if any, was actually water molecules — like we drink every day — or something more like drain cleaner.”
Now a postdoctoral fellow at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Honnibal’s graduate thesis, at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa, Honolulu, contains the fruits of his astonishing research into water on the Moon.
The water that Honnibal discovered exists perhaps only because its location, inside the glass beads and in-between grains, protects it from the harsh radiation that the Moon endures.
The H20 there is trapped in a cubic meter of soil on the Moon’s surface — but it is very little compared to the bounty of water on the Earth — amounting to one hundred times less than what is in the Sahara Desert.
At this point, it is uncertain how the water came to be there and exactly how it has survived throughout the eons.
The SOFIA array orbits the Earth at an altitude of 45,000 feet, allowing it to stay above the water vapor that is present in our atmosphere and enabling it to see the universe around us more easily with infrared light.
“Without a thick atmosphere,” Honnibal told the press, “water on the sunlit lunar surface should just be lost to space. Yet somehow, we’re seeing it. Something is generating the water, and something must be trapping it there.
“The water may be delivered by micrometeorites that land on the lunar surface and carry small amounts of water. Or solar wind streaming out from the sun could deliver particles and elements, like hydrogen, to the lunar surface,” he explained.
“This could actually cause a chemical reaction with minerals that include oxygen in the soil. The reaction could create hydroxyl, which is then hit by micrometeorites to create water,” Honnibal added.
What makes this discovery even more astonishing perhaps is the fact that SOFIA wasn’t designed to look for water on the Moon at all. Its first test flight, undertaken in August of 2018, was only a test flight to see what types of data might be gleaned about the Moon, which is much closer to the Earth than the celestial objects it was designed to study.
Naseem Rangwala, SOFIA’s lead scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center said in a statement “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.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.”
Rangwala says that future researching SOFIA will center on how the water came to be there in the first place, and how it has moved across the surface of the Moon. Any information they are able to glean from that research will help NASA in its efforts to understand how to use the water as a resource in the future.
Jacob Bleacher, the chief exploration scientist in the advanced exploration systems division of NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, said in a statement on Monday “Water is a valuable resource, for both scientific purposes and for use by our explorers. If we can use the resources at the Moon, then we can carry less water and more equipment to help enable new scientific discoveries.”