The Moon Has Water, Says NASA
NASA, after making people wait five whole days to hear their “exciting announcement,” finally revealed their discovery in two studies published in Nature Astronomy: the moon may have water distributed evenly across its entire surface, including both the sunlit part and the cold, shadowed places.
The space agency’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) found water molecules “roughly equivalent to a 12-ounce bottle of water” within a 1-cubic meter sample of lunar soil taken from the Clavius crater in the moon’s southern hemisphere, the agency announced in a statement. The discovery, while still minuscule when compared to the driest parts on Earth, challenges what we thought we knew about the environment on the moon — scientists’ previous discoveries had only found some hydrogen on the moon, and for the longest time couldn’t prove it was part of water (H2O) or of a similarly composed chemical, hydroxyl (OH).
“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,” Casey Honniball, the lead author who published the results from her graduate thesis work at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa, in Honolulu, said in a statement. “Without a thick atmosphere, 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.”
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While NASA doesn’t yet know if the water found on the moon is fit for human consumption, its presence opens up new avenues for deep space exploration, especially for long missions in inhospitable environments. NASA’s mission to send the first woman to the moon in 2024 — called the Artemis program — could further explore the nature of the moon’s water molecules, the agency said, with the aim of establishing “ a sustainable human presence there by the end of the decade.”
The journey to discover water on the moon has been a long, revelatory one. Scientists concluded the moon was as dry as a desert when Apollo 11 astronauts came back from their mission in 1969. Since then, scientists have proven the presence of water and ice in some cold, shadowy parts of the moon and have found the moon’s interior to hold large amounts of water. Now, researchers have found even the moon’s driest regions can sustain water — and the ice content of the moon’s cold shadowy parts is 20% more than scientists previously thought. This means there is a lot more H2O to work with on the moon than we’ve ever imagined, making the unimaginable in space exploration suddenly seem possible.
The next step is to understand what creates the water on the moon — theories include micrometeorites colliding onto the lunar surface and deposit water molecules in small crystals, and solar winds transporting hydrogen to the lunar surface, which reacts with the oxygen present in the soil. Another avenue for exploration is how the water gets stored on the surface, away from the scorching, evaporative heat of the sun — it could be the micrometeorite beads shielding the water molecules, or the grains of dirt under which H2O is hidden, scientists speculate.
“If we can use the resources at the Moon, then we can carry less water and more equipment to help enable new scientific discoveries,” one NASA scientist said.