- Kelly Shen ’23
Data collected by spacecraft eleven years ago revealed a shocking truth: the Moon wasn’t the dry dusty desert we all imagined it to be, it was actually a little damp. However, we couldn’t confirm the presence of water, because we couldn’t tell if the substance picked up by the craft was H2O, or OH (hydroxyl). This week, two journal articles published by the Nature Astronomy magazine revisited the finding, confirming that yes, there truly is water on the moon.
How scientists found the water:
First, scientists used infrared to scan the surface of the moon, showing chemical signatures in extreme clarity. They did this by sending SOFIA, or Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, into the sky. A Boeing 747 with a telescope installed at the back of its fuselage, the aircraft flies at almost 43,000 feet. During flight, it opens a hatch at the rear, points its telescope toward the sky and studies the cosmos in infrared light. Flying at such a high altitude means that water vapor cannot interfere with the infrared signals, making for more accurate measurements.
How did the water get there in the first place?
The lunar surface is constantly being showered by flying space rocks and other debris. What scientists speculate is that water is trapped in glass created by impacts or between grains, where it can be shielded from the extreme environment. Another contributing factor might be solar wind. The sun throws hydrogen atoms that collide with the moon, leading to the formation of hydroxyl.
The moon also has many craters, which creates eternal shadows that never see the light of the sun. Water the ends up in those regions are turned to ice forever, preserved by the freezing conditions.
What will happen next?
NASA plans to return to the moon with the Artemis program, which will establish a permanent base on the lunar surface. Water on the surface of the moon could be used for sustaining astronauts, creating oxygen and hydrogen for rocket fuel or power generation, or conducting experiments. What the Artemis astronauts are going to do with the water is a mystery, but it is safe to say that it will be a very exciting mission.
Photo from Unsplash.com, captured by NASA.