MOUNTAIN VIEW (KPIX 5) – NASA wraps up a busy October with another significant announcement regarding the discovery of molecular water on the sunlit surface of the moon.
Previously, scientists believed portions of the moon’s surface that are exposed to the sun’s rays was too extreme to support the presence of water, and that water only existed in the form of ice in darkened craters.
The findings were published Monday in the journal Nature Astronomy, titled “Molecular water detected on the sunlit Moon by SOFIA” and is a collaboration of a team of researchers from NASA Ames in Mountain View, NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in Palmdale, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt Maryland, University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, Georgia Tech, Johns Hopkins University, and the Space Science Institute in Boulder.
SOFIA, an acronym for ‘Stratospheric Observatory For Infrared Astronomy’, is a highly-modified Boeing 747 operated by NASA, fitted with a high-power telescope that points out a rear hatch. SOFIA flies at 45,000 feet, above 99% of the Earth’s atmosphere and the view is unobstructed by water vapor and particulates in the air.
Normally, SOFIA’s mission is to look into deep space for distant nebulas, galaxies, and black holes. But researchers decided to point the telescope at the moon, specifically at the Clavius Crater in the southern hemisphere. Reconfiguring the hardware and software to gather data from such a close object, all from a moving aircraft, was a challenge.
SOFIA detected a “fundamental vibration of molecular water…a spectral signature at 6 µm that is not shared by other hydroxyl compounds”, according to the study.
“It helps us clearly say, definitively, that this is water and not any other molecule,” said Naseem Rangwala, a project scientist at NASA Ames. “So when they started during their analysis to see this strong signal, at this location near the Clavius Crater, they were very excited. And when we heard it, we were literally over the moon.”
Because the moon has no atmosphere, the surface can reach up temperatures up to 260 degrees Fahrenheit.
“We really didn’t expect this. We didn’t expect that this water molecule could survive the harsh conditions of the lunar surface, we would think that it would escape in this airless environment,” said Rangwala.
The researchers theorize that tiny micrometeorites smashing into the moon surface may have created tiny beads of glass that could have trapped the water molecules inside. Or perhaps water formed when hydrogen atoms from solar storms collided with hydroxyl (OH) on the moon.
Don’t expect to find ponds or lakes of liquid water. Rangwala said the water molecules are sparse, and the surface is “drier than the Sahara”, but still present nonetheless.
The announcement allows NASA to conduct “resource management” in its quest to build a moon base that could one day support a manned mission to Mars.
“I hope so, at least we will make some contribution to history. This is very exciting for us. And to continue to inspire the next generation of scientists to push the limits to always be creative and think outside the box,” said Rangwala.