Researchers had previously detected the presence of hydrogen on the lunar surface, but had not been sure whether it was in the form of water (H20) or its close relative hydroxyl (OH).
Interestingly, this was SOFIA’s first time looking at the Moon. (Image: NASA)
NASA’s discovery on Moon: The US’ space agency NASA has found water on the surface of the Moon! In an unprecedented announcement on Monday, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has confirmed that its Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy or SOFIA has found water on the sunlit areas of the Moon. This implies that water on the Moon could be distributed throughout its surface, instead of just being limited to shadowed and cold areas as previously thought. Water molecules have been detected in the Clavius Crater. The crater is situated in the southern hemisphere of the Moon and is among the largest craters visible from the Earth.
Researchers had previously detected the presence of hydrogen on the lunar surface, but had not been sure whether it was in the form of water (H20) or its close relative hydroxyl (OH). As per the data for this location, water has been found in concentration of 100 to 412 parts per million, which roughly equals a 12-ounce water bottle, in a cubic meter of soil spread on the lunar surface. To put this into context, the Sahara desert contains 100 times the water detected by SOFIA on the Moon. However, the discovery remains key because it brings questions about the creation of water and its sustenance on the airless, harsh surface conditions on the Moon.
NASA Science Mission Directorate Astrophysics Division’s Director Paul Herts said that with this discovery, questions regarding resources required for deep space exploration are also being raised.
Why water in space is important
Apart from water from space being important for research and a gateway to more information about space, water is a key ingredient to life, and in deep space exploration, its presence can be precious. At present, astronauts going to space have to carry all the resources, including food and water, with them to sustain during their visit to outer space. If this water is found to be suitable for human use, the astronauts would have to carry less water with them while going on missions, allowing more valuable equipment to be taken to outer space.
NASA is planning to send the first woman and the next man to the lunar surface as part of its Artemis programme in 2024, and it hopes to find out more about the water resources on the Moon, including its suitability for human use, before the mission is launched. The agency hopes to aid in the establishment of a sustainable human presence on the Moon by the end of the decade.
Previous research in the area
NASA has said that the results given by SOFIA are based upon years of previous research in this area. Back in 1969, when the Apollo astronauts returned from the Moon, the lunar surface was thought to be completely dry.
In subsequent missions, different discoveries started coming to the fore. The Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite by NASA had confirmed the presence of ice in craters around the Moon’s poles which were perpetually shadowed. Alongside, several spacecraft, like Cassini by NASA and ESA and the Indian Space Research Organisation’s (ISRO’s) Chandrayaan-1, had found the presence of hydration in sunnier regions. However, these missions had not been able to confirm whether the hydration was because of the presence of H20 or because of OH.
Why is the discovery surprising?
Casey Honniball, the lead author who published the results in the journal Nature Astronomy, said that without the presence of a thick atmosphere like that of Earth, the water on the Moon’s sunlit areas should have been lost to space, but it is there. This means that there is something causing the generation of the water, and something that is trapping it there, she said.
There could be many forces causing the water to be created on the Moon. Some of these, as stipulated by NASA, are the raining of water-carrying micrometeorites down on the Moon’s surface, leading to the deposit of water there. The space agency has also thought of a two-step possibility for the presence and persistence of water on the Moon’s surface The Sun’s solar wind could cause hydrogen to reach the Moon’s surface and a chemical reaction with oxygen-containing minerals in the soil could be set off to create hydroxyl. At the same time, micrometeorite bombardment’s radiation could transform that hydroxyl into water.
The storage of water on the lunar surface is also an intriguing aspect. NASA stipulates that there could be tiny bead-like structures in the soil formed out of high heat due to the micrometeorite impacts, and the water could be trapped in these structures. Alternatively, water could be sheltered from the sunlight due to being hidden between lunar soil grains. The second possibility would make water a little more accessible than that trapped in bead-like structures, the space agency said.
Another research published by scientists in the same issue of Nature Astronomy theorises, with the help of models and data by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, that water could be trapped in small shadows across more of the lunar surface than currently expected. At these shadows, the temperatures stay below freezing, the scientists stipulated.
Interestingly, this was SOFIA’s first time looking at the Moon.