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Aerial Observatory Confirms Water Molecules On The Moon

This illustration highlights the Moon’s Clavius Crater with an illustration depicting water trapped in the lunar soil there. Photo: NASA

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Scientists have found more water on the moon — a resource that could help future NASA astronauts. The findings come from an airborne observatory making its first lunar observation.

SOFIA is a modified Boeing 747 carrying a telescope in the stratosphere. Its instruments observed water molecules on the sunlit south pole of the moon. Previous observations of the same area reveled some sort of hydration, but it was unclear if it was H20 or HO, chemical compound called hydroxide which found in drain clearer.

NASA’s SOFIA observatory at Daytona International Airport. Photo: Brendan Byrne

“Prior to the SOFIA observations, we knew there was some kind of hydration,” said Casey Honniball, the lead author of the study published in Nature Astronomy. “But we didn’t know how much, if any, was actually water molecules – like we drink every day – or something more like drain cleaner.”

Because SOFIA flies at altitudes above most of Earth’s water vapor, it was able to focus on the specific wavelength to detect water molecules, detecting a surprising concentration at Clavius Crater.

Honniball said there’s 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.

NASA has eyed the south pole as a possible landing spot for astronauts, in part due to the possibility of water that could be used for resources or fuel. But researchers said the water is trapped in tiny glass beads and might not be immediately accessible to astronauts or spacecraft.

“One of the things we don’t know yet is whether the water detected by SOFIA on a sunlit surface is accessible for use as a resource,” said Paul Hertz, director of the Astrophysics Division in the Science Mission Directorate at NASA. “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.”

NASA said it will conduct follow-up studies. The VIPER spacecraft will create the first water map of the moon — slated for lunar landing in 2022. The Trump administration charged NASA with returning humans to the moon by 2024, launching on the agency’s SLS rocket from Kennedy Space Center. 

The water molecule observation was SOFIA’s first to focus on the moon, which took place back in August 2018. “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.”


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Brendan Byrne

About Brendan Byrne

Space Reporter and 'Are We There Yet?' Host

Brendan covers space news for WMFE, everything from rocket launches to the latest scientific discoveries in our universe. He hosts WMFE's weekly radio show and podcast "Are We There Yet?" which explores human space exploration. He also helps produce WMFE's public affairs show "Intersection," working with host ... Read Full Bio »

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