NASA's SOFIA Finds Water On The Moon's Sunlit Side!


CCSS NAS-4 491 Words 4-Minute Listen
The Clavius Crater on the Moon as seen by NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. The SOFIA observatory has detected water ice in shadowed regions of this sunlit lunar location ((Image credit: NASA/Moon Trek/USGS/LRO)

The presence of ice in the permanently shadowed craters around the Moon's poles has been known for some time. However, researchers had been unsure if the hydration detected on the satellite's sunlit areas was "molecular" water (H2O), or hydroxyl (OH), a molecule that's one hydrogen atom shy of becoming water. On October 26, 2020, NASA confirmed that the liquid was indeed water.

“We had indications that H2O – the familiar water we know – might be present on the sunlit side of the Moon,” said Paul Hertz, Director of Astrophysics at NASA. “Now we know it is there. This discovery challenges our understanding of the lunar surface and raises intriguing questions about resources relevant for deep space exploration.”

The discovery was made using data collected by NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA). The modified Boeing 747 aircraft, which can fly its large telescope at altitudes of up to 45,000 feet, allows researchers to clearly observe space objects. The water molecules — detected using a special infrared camera capable of discerning between the wavelengths of H2O and OH — were found in the Clavius Crater. Located on the Moon's Southern Hemisphere, the large crater can be clearly seen from Earth.

The Moon’s Clavius Crater, with an illustration depicting water trapped in the lunar soil there, along with an image of NASA’s SOFIA, which found lunar water. (Credit: NASA/ Daniel Rutter)

However, before you start packing your bags for our satellite, be warned that the water concentration is extremely low — about 100 to 412 parts per million. To put it in perspective, the Sahara Desert has about 100 times more water! "This is not puddles of water but instead water molecules that are so spread apart that they do not form ice or liquid water," said NASA researcher Casey Honniball, who led the study. Though not enough to sustain humans, the discovery is significant because water is a rare and precious resource in deep space.

The scientists speculate that the H2O molecules may have been deposited by the tiny meteorites that are continually bombarding the Moon's surface. Another plausible explanation involves a multi-step process where the Sun's solar wind brings hydrogen to the Moon, which then reacts with oxygen-bearing minerals in the soil to create hydroxyl. This hydroxyl could later be transformed into water from the micrometeorites' radiation.

The Clavius Crater is one of the Moon's largest craters and visible from Earth (Jstuby/ CC0,/ Wikimedia Commons)

Also perplexing is how the water escapes evaporation. The liquid could be trapped in tiny bead-like structures in the soil that form from the intense heat generated from the micrometeorite impacts. Alternatively, the H2O molecules may be hidden inside the lunar soil grains and sheltered from the Sun.

“Without a thick atmosphere, water on the sunlit lunar surface should just be lost to space,” said Honniball. “Yet somehow we’re seeing it. Something is generating the water, and something must be trapping it there.”

NASA plans to conduct follow-up missions to determine how widespread the water is across the lunar surface. The findings will allow the US space agency to find the perfect landing for its Artemis mission that will take the first woman and next man to explore the Moon more extensively in 2024.


Get the Workbook for this article!

Workbook contains: Article, Reading Comprehension, Critical Thinking Questions, Vocabulary in Context (+ answers), Multiple Choice Quiz (+ answers), Parts of Speech Quiz (+ answers), Vocabulary Game (+ answers)
Cite Article
  • helenp1093
    helenp1093Monday, April 19, 2021 at 7:26 am
    Maybe humans could live there in the future! That would be really cool.
    • kat7904
      kat7904Monday, February 1, 2021 at 7:04 am
      if the moon has water i wonder if you can drink it..
      • tdflame5272007
        tdflame5272007Thursday, March 25, 2021 at 5:50 am
        Considering it's molecules of water that are a little harder to notice and even if you did it would still be hard to get any type of thirst to go away, but is still possible just would take a while
        • tdflame5272007
          tdflame5272007Thursday, March 25, 2021 at 5:51 am
          Also, you would need something to breathe in space with or a tube to connect the water only NASA would create that sort of thing.
        • kidnapper
          kidnapperThursday, February 25, 2021 at 7:32 am
          It probably wouldn't taste that well lol
        • unicorn87
          unicorn87Friday, January 29, 2021 at 10:58 am
          WOW! Water on the moon sounds really cool. that is an awesome discovery. Someday we might live on the moon!
          • tdflame5272007
            tdflame5272007Tuesday, April 13, 2021 at 9:07 am
            I wouldn't get your hopes up, but we might have too someday, but if we ever did it wouldn't be for a really long time
          • pylimolurepo
            pylimolurepoTuesday, January 26, 2021 at 9:32 am
            i want to live in the moon so i can say "I BELIEVE I CAN FLY
            • awalker_05
              awalker_05Monday, January 11, 2021 at 12:35 pm
              omg guys plz stop saying we gonna live on the moon that's not how science works and just because they find a little bit of water on the moon-doesn't mean yall can pack your bags and move
              • kidnapper
                kidnapperThursday, February 25, 2021 at 7:33 am
              • skullcrusher11
                skullcrusher11Thursday, January 7, 2021 at 7:59 pm
                Get ready 2038 we will be living on the moon! Like this comment if you agree.
                • jwt60
                  jwt60Tuesday, January 19, 2021 at 8:09 am
                  if you want to die !!!
                • uniccos-1599616
                  uniccos-1599616Thursday, January 7, 2021 at 2:48 pm
                  that is soo cool are other planets like mars the same!?
                  • bookbug278
                    bookbug278Thursday, January 7, 2021 at 11:29 am
                    This is incredible!!
                    • christmastree20
                      christmastree20Sunday, December 27, 2020 at 8:07 am
                      • eternalicedrake
                        eternalicedrakeTuesday, December 22, 2020 at 5:49 am
                        I wonder if this means that at one point a species of animal, such as tardigrades that can live in space, once lived on the moon.