Earlier in October, NASA teased the world with news of a special announcement concerning the Moon, using social media to announce the fact … they would be making an announcement on Monday, October 26th.
The announcement of the announcement led to a lot of speculation (and a lot of ribbing at NASA’s expense) with some correctly identifying the fact that the news would have something to do with the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), the world’s largest flying telescope. This is a joint NASA / DLR (German space agency) venture that flies a German-built 2.5m diameter reflecting telescope aboard a short-bodied 747 SP operated by NASA.
Flying at 12 km above the ground, and so well above the worst of the distorting effect of the Earth’s atmosphere and capable of 10-hour observation sorties, SOFIA is almost as capable as space-based telescopes of a similar nature (having around 85% of the infra-red capability of a similarly-sized space telescope), whilst offering fair easier and lower-priced maintenance, upgrade and general operational costs. In addition, the range of the 747 aircraft means that SOFIA can operate over almost any location on Earth and so be available for almost any observational requirements than fall without the telescope’s capabilities.
When finally made public, the announcement – which was billed as being related to NASA’s current plans to return humans to the Moon, Project Artemis -, proved to be that SOFIA has detected water molecules on the sunlit surfaces of the Moon.
Whilst an important discovery, marking a further increase in the presence of water on the Moon (which we’ve known about since 2009), it is important to offer a measure of context to the discovery: this is about water molecules bound within the regolith (surface material) of the Moon, not actual water ice, as was confirmed in 2018 for many of the permanently shadowed and very cold craters of the Moon’s south polar regions.
In particular, SOFIA detected the infra-red signature for water molecules within the crater Clavius (perhaps most famous for being the location of the lunar administrative base in 2001: A Space Odyssey). Located in the southern highlands at 58.4°S 14.4°W, Clavius is one of the oldest formations on the lunar surface, believed to have formed some 4 billion years ago; it is some 230 km across and some 3.5 km deep.
That water molecules may be widely present in lunar regolith had been long suspected. However, previous estimates as to how much might be present had been hampered by the fact that previous studies could not clear differentiate between the presence of water molecules (H2O) and hydroxyl (OH). During extended observations of Clavius, utilising a special instrument, the Faint Object infraRed CAmera for the SOFIA Telescope (FORCAST), the airborne observatory was able to detect water molecules at around 100 to 400 parts per million in a cubic metre of regolith.
To put this in proportion, this means that SOFIA detected the equivalent of one third of a litre of water trapped in a cubic metre of lunar surface material – which is actually a lot. If the SoFIA findings hold true for all of the surface material within the sunlit parts of the Moon, it means there a potentially a lot of water to be had; but whether or not it is actually accessible or have any significant bearing on human activities on the Moon is open to debate. Certainly, it is unlikely to have any significant impact on America’s Project Artemis, despite claims otherwise.
Simply put, the water molecules detected within Clavius are most likely bound in glass beads that resulted from micrometeoroid impacts. As such, it is nowhere near as potentially accessible as the water ice in the south polar region craters, and it is going to need relatively intensive processing in order to be properly extracted and turned into usable water – and the kind of heavy engineering required to achieve this at scale isn’t going to be available for use on the Moon any time soon, and may not even been cost-effective even when it is.
Nevertheless, the discovery is important for our understanding of the Moon and our longer-term exploration of the lunar surface. It might also mean a new lease of life for SOFIA. whilst not mentioned in the release, NASA had sought to quietly terminate the 10-year-old telescope in 2021, citing it’s “lack of scientific output”.