The National Aeronautics and Space Administration on Monday confirmed the presence of water on the moon’s sunlit surface for the first time. The results, published in two studies in Nature Astronomy, showed that there may be more water on the moon’s surface than previously thought.
NASA made the discovery using the SOFIA flying observatory. “SOFIA has detected water molecules (H2O) in Clavius Crater, one of the largest craters visible from Earth, located in the Moon’s southern hemisphere,” NASA said in a statement. “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).”
It added: “This discovery indicates that water may be distributed across the lunar surface, and not limited to cold, shadowed places.”
India’s first lunar mission, Chandrayaan-1, was the first to find water on the moon’s surface, in 2009. At the time, researchers found it difficult to confirm whether it was water – H20 – or hydroxyl molecules.
Paul Hertz, the director of the Astrophysics Division in the Science Mission Directorate at NASA, said the discovery will have a significant impact on the understanding of lunar surface. “We had indications that H2O – the familiar water we know – might be present on the sunlit side of the Moon,” he said. “Now we know it is there. This discovery challenges our understanding of the lunar surface and raises intriguing questions about resources relevant for deep space exploration.”
The scientists found molecular water trapped between grains of lunar soil or natural glasses. “A lot of people think that the detection I’ve made is water ice, which is not true,” Casey Honniball from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland told Reuters. “It’s just the water molecules - because they’re so spread out they don’t interact with each other to form water ice or even liquid water.”
The second study focused on “cold traps” on the Moon. These areas exist in darkness and temperatures fall below - 160 degrees Celsius. Frozen water in these regions can stay stable for billions of years.
Researchers led by Paul Hayne from the University of Colorado used NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft to find billions of small shadows in the cold traps. “Our research shows that a multitude of previously unknown regions of the moon could harbour water ice,” Hayne was quoted as saying by Reuters. “Our results suggest that water could be much more widespread in the moon’s polar regions than previously thought, making it easier to access, extract and analyse.”