Observatory Discovers Water Molecules on the Moon

Through NASA’s SOFIA observatory, scientists have discovered that there are water molecules on the sunny surface of the Moon.

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By Cindy Yang

On the barren, rocky surface of the Moon, there is no sign of life at all. Everything seems to be a wasteland full of craters and dry soil. Any attempts to search for water yield to a freezing environment. There are many celestial objects that contain water in the form of ice, such as Jupiter’s moon Europa and Saturn’s moon Enceladus. However, this is not always the case, as an observatory found that there are water molecules on the surface of the Moon. This finding changes the way we view celestial objects like the Moon, as it reveals that water molecules can exist outside of ice.

NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) discovered that there is water on the Moon, more specifically, where the Sun shines. According to NASA, the observatory is known for the fact that it can fly “at altitudes of up to 45 thousand feet […] with a 106-inch diameter telescope [reaching] above 99 percent of the water vapor in Earth’s atmosphere.” SOFIA was able to find traces of water molecules within the Clavius Crater, a surface cavity constantly exposed to the Sun’s rays, by taking advantage of its high height relative to space. Not much water was found, as shown in the Nature Astronomy research article, which states how “observations reveal a six µm emission feature at high lunar latitudes due to the presence of molecular water on the lunar surface. On the basis of the strength of the six µm band, we estimate abundances of about 100 to 400 µg g⁻¹ H2O.” Therefore, the observatory shows the practicality of implementing telescopes at higher altitudes within our atmosphere, as a closer view can lead to critical discoveries such as water on the Moon.

In addition, the question of where water molecules are being contained is still up in the air. A Nature Astronomy research article concerning the discovery states, “The distribution of water over the small latitude range is a result of local geology and is probably not a global phenomenon. Lastly, we suggest that a majority of the water we detect must be stored within glasses [from past meteor collisions] or in voids between grains sheltered from the harsh lunar environment, allowing the water to remain on the lunar surface.” The scientists’ conclusion is based on the concept of solidified barriers that shield water molecules from sunlight. Another speculation of where water molecules are stored includes holes created by the heat from meteor collisions or undetected shadows on the Moon.

The discovery of water on the Moon’s surface is vital to understanding origins of objects in our universe. This could prompt further research potentially leading to answers including the origins of the Moon’s water. If planets and moons are closely studied, the ability to use these water molecules would open up additional opportunities, such as taking water from the surface to create a stable atmosphere that could lead to space colonies in our solar system and beyond. Focusing on and analyzing water molecules on other planets outside of the solar system would also increase the chances of finding extraterrestrial life, as most organisms need water to thrive. SOFIA gives reason to put more funding into creating flying observatories that can look beneath the surface of celestial objects, as discoveries such as this one will bring us closer to a future where humanity can survive on other planets.