27 October 2020
NASA confirms, for the first time, the discovery of water on the sunlit surface of the Moon. This discovery indicates that water may be distributed across the lunar surface, and not limited to cold, shadowed places.
NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), the world’s largest flying observatory, has detected water molecules (H2O) in Clavius Crater. Located in the Moon’s southern hemisphere, Clavius Crater is one of the largest craters visible from Earth.
The amount of water found on the moon may be significantly very small roughly equivalent to a 12-ounce bottle of water, but the discovery raises new questions about how water is created and how it persists on the harsh, airless lunar surface.
Water is a precious resource in deep space and a key ingredient of life as we know it. Whether the water SOFIA found is easily accessible for use as a resource remains to be determined. 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).
Under NASA’s Artemis program, the agency is eager to learn all it can about the presence of water on the Moon in advance of sending the first woman and next man to the lunar surface in 2024 and establishing a sustainable human presence there by the end of the decade.
SOFIA’s results build on years of previous research examining the presence of water on the Moon.
Orbital and impactor missions over the past 20 years, such as NASA’s Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite, confirmed ice in permanently shadowed craters around the Moon’s poles. Meanwhile, several spacecraft – including the Cassini mission and Deep Impact comet mission, as well as the Indian Space Research Organization’s Chandrayaan-1 mission – and NASA’s ground-based Infrared Telescope Facility, looked broadly across the lunar surface and found evidence of hydration in sunnier regions. Yet those missions were unable to definitively distinguish the form in which it was present – either H2O or OH.
SOFIA’s follow-up flights will look 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.
SOFIA is a joint project of NASA and the German Aerospace Center.
Crater: A large bowl-shaped cavity in the ground or on a celestial object, typically one caused by an explosion or the impact of a meteorite.
Sustainable: Able to be maintained at a certain rate or level.