Water on the Moon: What NASA’s Announcement Means

On Monday, October 26, NASA announced that earth’s moon has a lot more water than scientists once previously thought. For the first time, scientists have found water molecules across the sunlit regions of the moon’s surface.

How was the water discovered?

NASA scientists made the discovery using SOFIA – the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy. SOFIA is a modified Boeing 747sp aircraft that carries a 2.7-meter reflecting telescope. Because the plane can fly into the stratosphere, SOFIA’s observations aren’t affected by Earth’s atmosphere. This allows scientists to study the moon and other aspects of our solar system in ways that aren’t possible with ground-based telescopes.

Didn’t we already know there was water on the moon?

Yes and no. In 2009, data collected by robotic modules on the moon indicated that Earth’s natural satellite did have what could be water, but they couldn’t determine how much of the substance found was molecular water – or H2O, and how much was hydroxyl. Though similar, hydroxyl is one hydrogen atom short of water. Because hydroxyl is more thermally stable than water, scientists believed this is what was actually present in the sunlit areas of the lunar surface. However, thanks to the observations from SOFIA, scientists now know that what is present on the moon’s surface is water.

“The detection is very unique for molecular water,” said Shuai Li a planetary scientist at the University of Hawaii. “Based on our knowledge, it cannot be anything else.”

Why is this discovery important?

NASA is currently working to establish a permanent base on the moon’s surface by the end of the decade as part of its Artemis program. Finding water on the surface of the moon is an important step in making that happen. Water is important for a number of things, including creating hydrogen and oxygen for rocket fuel and power generation, horticultural experiments, and – of course – sustaining astronauts. NASA and the European Space Agency are both looking for ways to extract water from the moon’s surface.

Previously, NASA planned to explore the lunar south pole region, where water was thought to be more abundant. However, as this portion of the moon remains in shadow, it is considered a more dangerous area to explore. This discovery may mean that a base could be established in a relatively safer area to be used as a launchpad for planned missions to Mars and to explore the rest of the solar system.

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