With its usual enthusiasm, NASA today unveiled its latest “exciting” discovery about the Moon. According to research carried out by the SOFIA flying observatory, water molecules are found everywhere on the lunar surface.
The news is surprising, it being understood until then that the light and the solar wind were enough to sweep all traces of water from the surface of the Moon.
Water on the moon’s sunny surface
This Monday, October 26, NASA announced that it had discovered, for the first time, the trace of water molecules on the exposed surface of the Moon. In 2018, space observations had already confirmed the presence of water ice at the north and south poles of our satellite. In craters that are never exposed to sunlight, ice can stay there without being sublimated and swept away by the sun’s rays.
However, research carried out by Dr. Casey Honniball’s team with the help of the SOFIA flying laboratory (see the description of SOFIA at the end of the article) has been able to prove the presence of H2O molecules at the level of the Clavius crater, which is exposed to direct sunlight half the time.
Water trapped in glass?
For the moment, SOFIA has only been able to confirm the presence of independent molecules, and no liquid water or ice to speak of. According to scientists, these molecules are found in a diffuse way in the lunar regolith. They would probably be enclosed in glass crystals that would have formed during meteorite impacts or very old volcanic eruptions.
For the moment, NASA estimates that the lunar soil could contain approximately 34cm 3 of water for 1m 3 of earth. This would then make the Moon always 100 times drier than the Sahara Desert. But this would be a clear improvement over previous estimates.
Harnessing lunar water for human colonization
Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of questions posed to NASA have focused on the exploitation that could be made of this water. As we said earlier today (see bottom of the page), water is strategic for lunar colonization. It allows both to maintain life, but above all to refuel space vehicles.
This discovery could lead to reorienting some of the scientific exploration missions. Because to elucidate the mystery of this lunar water in full sun, it will imperatively be necessary to place instruments on site, with or without human operators on board.
For now, however, NASA’s announcements do not call into question current planning for permanent missions. Especially since this article by Casey Honniball is not the only one that Nature Astronomy published today. Another publication, focusing on the work of Paul Hayne, confirms today that the presence of moon ice in the polar and subpolar regions is greater than expected. And this because of microcracks that would offer shadow areas outside the large craters of the poles.
With a strong presence of water ice (at the bottom of the craters) and the possibility of operating solar panels permanently (outside the craters), the poles still remain the most attractive areas for future lunar bases. But today’s announcements make the lunar surface less inhospitable than expected. Enough to facilitate the exploration of our satellite, especially its hidden side.
You will find more details on the announcements made by NASA by unwinding our live feed, below:
Live: follow NASA announcements live on Clubic
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17:57 End of the press conference
The press conference ends. In the evening, we will come back here to the announcements that were made, their meaning and their potential impact.
17:55 Another question about the operational use of this water
Another request on the future use of this water, and when it will be available.
NASA recalls, once again, that the primary goal will be to deepen scientific knowledge. Depending on the nature and location of this water, it will eventually be possible to develop exploitation technologies.
But initially, the ARTEMIS missions, like the Apollo missions before them, will have to be based on the recycling of water. As for the ISS, it will also be possible to supply the permanent missions with fresh water, even if this will exploit a lot of resources that the local exploitation could save.
17:50 “The future of research will be on the surface”
To learn more about the water on the Moon, you will have to go to the surface. Research can be carried out by rovers, landers or manned missions, but observations from Earth will remain limited.
17:48 The search for water is happening throughout the solar system
The search for water takes place throughout the solar system, from the Moon to Mars, including asteroids and the moons of Jupiter and Saturn.
17:44 The use of SOFIA for academic research
Before considering the use of SOFIA, stratospheric balloons were considered.
17:41 Impact on Artemis?
At this time, the landing sites for future Artemis missions have not been determined. But SOFIA’s discovery could potentially have an impact on NASA’s future choices. Not to supply water to the mission, but for scientific exploration of the Moon.
17:38 Getting out of the “all polar”
Finding water elsewhere than in the lunar poles would make it possible to exploit possible lunar resources over a larger area. In the short term, it would thus be possible to study lunar water without having to descend into the polar craters.
In the long term, however, the poles also have the advantage of being lit (outside the craters) permanently, and not half the time like the rest of the lunar surface.
The current discovery should therefore not call into question the arguments in favor of a priority colonization of the South Pole.
17:35 Minor robots?
In the case of water exploitation on the lunar surface, or at shallow depth, it could be possible to exploit this ice or these diffuse molecules by exploiting robots that would come and mine the regolith.
But for now, NASA will focus on the scientific aspect of this discovery, before developing specific technologies. Understanding the phenomena of water formation and the “lunar water cycle” must prevail over any technical or operational approach.
17:34 Deep water?
SOFIA only observes the surface of the Moon, which allows the discovery of the day. However, it will take rovers or impactors to see if the water is also or more present at depth.
17:31 Solar winds and meteors
The “behavior of water” on the lunar surface, at the molecular level, could be linked to meteoritic activity, but also to the action of the solar wind.
Questions are asked about the far side of the Moon. A detection of water on this side of the Moon will of course not be possible through SOFIA, but researchers expect a similar phenomenon over the entire lunar surface.
17:31 “Orange rocks on the Moon”
A journalist asks if the orange rocks observed by the astronauts of the Apollo missions could be linked to this presence of water (rust). A priori, these orange rocks would be of volcanic origin, and not related to the process observed by SOFIA.
17:28 “Molecular Water”
Pending questions from Twitter, reporters continue to question Casey Honniball. The latter recalls, once again, that for the moment it is only about molecular traces. However, this confirms the stable presence of water on the lunar surface.
As we mentioned in our assumptions this afternoon, it remains to confirm the “behavior” of water, its mobility if it exists, and the processes behind it.
17:27 Questions from spectators
NASA moderators pass on spectator questions, posed on Twitter.
On the question of the quantity of water, the answer is always the same: “not much”. It remains to be seen whether this will be “sufficient” for practical use, or only a scientific curiosity to explore.
17:24 Insistent questions about the future use of this water
The questions relate a lot to the future uses of this water. But NASA recalls that this is above all a scientific discovery, really surprising, but that the practical applications will require many more studies on the part of SOFIA, but also of future orbiters and rovers sent on site.
17:22 “The shape of water”
NASA executives, on the practical aspects of this discovery, point out that it is difficult at this stage to know how and if this water could have an operational interest for the human presence on the Moon.
17:21 A small-scale discovery
Casey Honniball confirms that the research carried out by SOFIA covers a small part of the lunar surface, and that the amount of water detected remains very minimal. This is not liquid water, of course.
5:16 p.m.The questions and answers begin
NASA executives and researchers online answer questions from science journalists.
NASA stakeholders are:
Jacob Bleacher, Chief Scientific Officer for the Human Exploration and Operations Mission DirectoratePaul Hertz, director of the astrophisics division of NASACasey Honniball, the scientist who works at the Goddard Space Flight Center with NASA, and who is responsible for this discovery.Naseem Rangwala, scientist of the SOFIA mission
17:15 Much remains to be discovered
Future scientific research will have to focus on how the water molecules, of which SOFIA has detected the signature, manage to “survive” in the very difficult environment of the lunar regolith.
17:14 Details on SOFIA
SOFIA officials recall the interest of this flying observatory, which we presented to you this afternoon.
17:11 More details on NASA’s needs
Until now, the race for the lunar installation has focused on the poles, in particular the south pole, which interests NASA and ESA as well as Russian and Chinese agencies.
If the water discovered by SOFIA proves to be easy to access, anywhere on the lunar surface, it will be possible to colonize areas other than the poles. Being able to access water in places where solar panels can operate is one of the arguments advanced by NASA.
17:10 NASA explains the importance of water for lunar exploration
“Finding easily accessible water is very important to us”.
As we said in our article this afternoon, water is necessary for the human settlement there, both for the supply of drinking water and for the refueling of spacecraft.
17:07 Dr. Casey Honniball explains his discovery
The presence of water in the lunar soil, outside the polar craters, has been confirmed by SOFIA, without the exact location of this water (or ice) being known with precision today.
Further research will still have to look into the exact location of this water, its quantification, but also its origin (which could have a link with meteorite activity on the Moon)
17:05Questions remain unanswered
Thanks to the SOFIA laboratory, water molecules have been discovered outside the lunar craters located on the lunar poles. Still in the shadows, these craters were until now considered the only sources of lunar water.
17:03Water molecules have been found on the lit side of the moon
The news is indeed surprising. Water molecules have been found in lunar cirques exposed to sunlight
17:00The conference begins
Find a description of the SOFIA program and our predictions regarding the NASA announcement in our article below, published earlier today:
SOFIA: a flying astronomical observatory
The exciting new discovery promised by NASA was made with the help of the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy. Very special observation instrument, SOFIA is a Boeing 747 aircraft modified into a flying observatory.
At the back of a Boeing 747SP airframe, NASA engineers have integrated a telescope 2.5 m in diameter operating in the infrared bands. The main interest of SOFIA is to be able to observe the sky from the stratosphere. At these high altitudes, SOFIA overlooks 99% of the part of the Earth’s atmosphere that blocks infrared rays.
For this type of very precise observation, we then obtain results close to a space telescope, for only a fraction of the cost of construction, launch and operation.
Any news from lunar water?
At the moment, NASA has not yet revealed what its new “exciting” discovery would talk about. However, it is quite easy to guess the main theme of the conference based on how SOFIA works and the names of the speakers. And it will have nothing to do with possible little green men!
In addition to the senior executives of the SOFIA mission, one of the speakers is none other than Dr Casey Honniball. The latter’s work relates in particular to the development of techniques allowing the use of infrared observatories to detect water molecules.
The presence of water ice on the Moon is now almost certain. But we still know very little about it. Today’s announcements could therefore include:
- On how to detect water,
- On the location of deposits,
- Or on the behavior of molecules on the surface of our satellite.
For NASA, and for all space agencies involved in returning humans to the moon, lunar ice is a strategic resource. It will indeed provide drinking water for future astronauts. But the electrolysis of water mainly makes it possible to produce hydrogen and oxygen, which could be used to propel future lunar spaceships.
Anyway, we’ll know more very soon. Reconnect at 5 p.m. to clarify the matter!