NASA’s Stratospheric Infrared Astronomy Observatory (SOFIA) has confirmed, for the first time, the presence of water on the moons sunny surface. Great news for the future of human exploration on our satellite.
“exciting discovery about the Moon” signed by the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA). It is an airborne infrared telescope developed by the US agency and the German space agency in the 2000s.
“As the largest airborne observatory in the world, SOFIA is housed in a modified 747 capable of flying at an altitude between 12,000 and 13,000 meters, or above 99% of the obscuring water vapor of the atmosphere, to allow a clear view of the universe and other objects in our solar system,” says NASA.
The Observatory, therefore, recently focused on an object much closer to home: our satellite. But what did he find? This Monday, Paul Hertz, director of the astrophysics division at NASA headquarters (Washington), Jacob Bleacher, NASA, human exploration and exploitation missions, and Naseem Rangwala, project scientist the SOFIA mission, finally “dropped” the song.
Water in a sunny crater
The Observatory has indeed detected water molecules (H2O) in the Clavius crater, one of the most massive visible holes on Earth, located in the southern hemisphere of the Moon, the agency has just announced.
Previous observations had already suggested its presence, but researchers had so far been unable to distinguish between water and its close chemical relative, hydroxyl (OH).
According to new data from SOFIA, ice water is present at concentrations of 100 to 412 parts per million, trapped in a cubic meter of soil distributed over the lunar surface. By comparison, NASA notes that the Sahara Desert is home to a hundred times more water than SOFIA has detected.
“We had indications that H2O – the familiar water we know – might be present on the sunny side of the moon,” said Paul Hertz, director of the astrophysics division in the science missions directorate at NASA headquarters. in Washington. “Now, we know it’s there.”
A presence that intrigues
This discovery thus raises several intriguing questions. How did that water get there? How is it stored? Difficult to say at the moment.
“Without a thick atmosphere, water on the sunny lunar surface would simply have to be wasted back into space,” says Casey Honniball, of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “Yet we see it one way or another. So something is generating water, and something has to trap it there. ”
Several forces could be at play. Micrometeorites carrying small amounts of water could, for example, deposit it on the lunar surface upon impact. Another possibility involves a two-step process. The solar wind from the Sun supplies hydrogen to the lunar surface, causing a chemical reaction with minerals containing oxygen in the soil to create hydroxyl. Meanwhile, the radiation from the micrometeorite bombardment could turn this hydroxyl into water.
Regarding storage, the researchers suggest that this water could be trapped in tiny pearl-like structures in the ground that form due to the high heat created by micrometeorite impacts. Another possibility is that the water may be hidden between grains of lunar soil and shielded from sunlight.
It also remains to be seen whether this water will be readily available for use as a resource. As a reminder, NASA plans to send astronauts back to the site as early as 2024 but also aims for sustainable exploration of the Moon. It should be remembered, however, that the volumes of water involved in this work remain limited. Astronomer Jessica Sunshine, who spoke at the conference, pointed out that if we harvested all the H2O molecules present on the lunar surface over an area the size of an American football field, we would get less than a liter of water.