NASA announces discovery of water on the surface of the Moon.

Words By Eva Wallis

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has recently made a number of big announcements about the Moon. One of the most significant of these announcements has come from the Astrophysics Division Director for NASA, Dr Paul Hertz, who revealed on Monday (26/10/20) the breakthrough discovery that water molecules have been detected for the first time on a sunlit surface in the Clavius crater of the moon. 

Water was previously only thought to be present within deep craters and areas that never receive sunlight, however the Clavius crater is one of the biggest craters on the lunar surface which does receive sunlight. This is particularly exciting as it creates a possibility of water being more accessible to humans when on the moon, rather than in the depths of a crater. Being able to utilise the Moon’s resources during a mission would bring humans closer to long-term survival on the Moon than ever before, however methods of harvesting this water are yet to be developed.

The water was detected by the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) which was able to detect the unique chemical fingerprint of a water molecule using an infrared spectrometer. SOFIA is a modified Boeing 747SP aircraft which usually observes the infrared universe. This new research marks SOFIA’s first time observing the Moon and was initially only intended as a test, however since yielding such a huge discovery, it has created a basis for further research into this field.

Finding water on sunlit lunar surfaces raises the question on how water is created and persists in such a harsh environment as the moon, which has no atmosphere. Casey Honniball, lead author of the paper reporting the discovery, has theorised that individual water molecules are trapped in glass beads within the lunar soil, which protect the molecules from the harsh environment and from being lost into space. These beads are thought to have been created upon the impact of micrometeorites on the lunar surface and are the size of the tip of a pencil.

Honniball emphasises that, at this point, it is only a small concentration of water that has been detected – “the equivalent of a 12 oz bottle of water [355ml] in one cubic meter of lunar soil”. It is also important to realise that, due to this low concentration, the water molecules are so sparse that neither puddles nor ice form on the lunar surface, it is merely single molecules within these glass beads. It is hoped that further research will reveal more information behind the mechanism of water storage on the lunar surface. 

This discovery follows NASA’s announcement to install a wireless 4G network on the moon in partnership with NOKIA. The technology has been described by a NOKIA spokesperson as “ultra-compact, low-power, space-hardened” which will allow “vital command and control functions, remote control of lunar rovers, real-time navigation and streaming of high definition video”. 

This technology is essential for the first stages of NASA’s Artemis programme which initially aims to send the first woman and the next man to the moon by 2024. This programme hopes to provide research into the utilisation of the moon’s resources which will allow a sustained human presence on the moon by 2030. The research carried out during the Artemis programme will eventually be applied to sending humans to Mars.With the first Artemis deadline fast approaching and the recent news that NASA will be distributing $370million to 14 companies, such as NOKIA, who will supply cutting edge technologies to allow for the success of the Artemis programme, it is likely we should expect further exciting announcements from NASA in the not-too-distant future. 

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