NASA’s flying SOFIA telescope has confirmed the presence of water on the Moon’s sunlit surface. This proves that water is not just present in the shadowy craters, but could be all over the lunar surface.
Observations focus on the Clavius crater
The observations focuses on the Clavius crater, which is amongst the largest visible from Earth. Spectroscopic analysis of the observations revealed not only water, but also that it is relatively plentiful inside the lunar surface amounting to roughly 1 coke can per cubic meter (or 35 cubic feet). Compared to the Earth this is not much, as the Sahara desert has about 100 times more water in its soil than the Moon. However, with the right equipment the water can be extracted.
Water vital for sustained habitation on the Moon
This discovery comes right in time for the next manned mission planned for 2024 and the goal of establishing a continuous human presence by the end of the decade. Water is the biggest problem with missions like these and manned deep space missions in general.
It is currently not known whether the water that was found by the SOFIA telescope will be accessible with specialized machinery. If it is, one would probably expect driving water harvesters not unlike the ones featured in the movie Moon (2009).
The presence of water on the Moon has been an ongoing question for roughly half a century now, with scientists believing that that the Moon was completely dry until the 2009 LCROSS lander found ice in permanently shadowed craters. This awoke new interest in the Moon, with new missions being sent to investigate the ice and several infra-red telescopes scanning the lunar surface in search of water. The biggest challenge to date was that current technology could not definitively distinguish between water (H2O) and Hydroxyl (OH). As the latter is similar to drain cleaner, we really do want to know which of the two we are dealing with.
Radically changes understanding of the Moon
The breakthrough was possible with the SOFIA telescope, which is mounted onto a modified Boeing 747 and can fly at a height of 14 km (45,000 ft), above 99% of the atmosphere’s water vapor, giving a clear view to extraterrestrial water. During this flight, the team discovered a surprising amount of water in the Clavius crater, radically changing our current understanding of the lunar surface.
Without an atmosphere, like we have around the Earth, the water should simply evaporate away in the sunlight. This means that something has to be either keeping it there, or that the water has to be replaced somehow. It could be that the water content is being replenished by (micro) meteorites or that it is locked away beneath a thin layer of lunar
According to Jacob Bleacher, chief exploration scientist for NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate; “Water is a valuable resource, for both scientific purposes and for use by our explorers, If we can use the resources at the Moon, then we can carry less water and more equipment to help enable new scientific discoveries.”