The Discovery of Water on the Sunlit Moon

by Christian Asdourian


November 23, 2020

On October 26, 2020, a new discovery about the Moon was reported, one that made scientists greatly excited for the future prospects of space exploration. Molecules of water, a substance necessary for life on Earth, were definitively found on sunlit parts of the Moon previously thought to be devoid of such material. Though this discovery may sound insignificant at first glance, its implications can shape the future of space travel. 

A Boeing 747SP jetliner modified with a 106-inch diameter telescope was the one to make the discovery. The jetliner, named the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, or the SOFIA, flew up to altitudes of 45,000 feet above Earth’s sea level to rise above 99% of the atmosphere’s water vapor. There, SOFIA’s scientists were able to use the telescope’s infrared camera to detect a wavelength specific to water molecules, the evidence needed to prove the existence of water molecules on the warmer parts of the Moon. But it still remains unclear whether those water molecules are capable of being extracted for use by astronauts. SOFIA’s researchers have planned several follow-up flights to observe different parts of the Moon during different times of the month. Their findings will help NASA better understand how water molecules were able to survive on the harsh lunar surface.

So how did the water molecules get there in the first place? There are a few theories yet to be disproven that explain how they could have come into being. Micrometeorites and comets carrying water molecules could have been crashing onto the surface of the Moon, and the water then could have been stored in bead-like structures under the soil by the immense heat of the meteor impacts. Another theory describes solar winds carrying hydrogen atoms to the Moon that then had chemical reactions with the mineral rich components of the lunar soil, producing water. 

It has been over a decade since NASA first discovered water at the poles of the Moon, raising the question of why these new molecules were only discovered recently. “[The discovery] was, in fact, the first time SOFIA has looked at the Moon,” said Naseem Rangwala, SOFIA’s project scientist. The findings were the result of a test observation by scientists to determine if SOFIA could capture reliable data from the Moon.

This discovery has far-reaching implications for the future of humanity’s exploration of the solar system. Transporting resources into space can be costly, with some rates close to 10,000 dollars per pound of materials. Being able to set up a mining colony on the Moon to extract water for drinking or to create fuel from the molecules would be an enormous help in cutting down costs of space exploration. Despite its being so common on Earth, “water is a valuable resource, for both scientific purposes and for use by our explorers,” said Jacob Bleacher, chief exploration scientist of NASA’s Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate. The data discovered by SOFIA will help with work on possible future Moon missions, such as creating the first ever water source on the Moon for use by human explorers.

Chou, Felicia and Alison Hawkes. “NASA’s SOFIA Discovers Water on Sunlit Surface of Moon.” Earth’s Moon, October 26, 2020.

Mehta, Jatan. “How NASA and Chandrayaan discovered water on the Moon.” Jatan’s Space, October 28, 2020.

“Neil Degrasse Tyson Breaks Down Discovery Of Water On The Moon.” Today, October 27, 2020.

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