NASA’s flying SOFIA telescope confirms water in the Moon’s soil

Water molecules have been found tucked away in the lunar regolith, even in sunlit regions on the surface.
By | Published: October 26, 2020 | Last updated on May 18, 2023
Clavius Crater Moon water found

NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy confirmed that water molecules are trapped beneath the soil in the Moon’s Clavius Crater. 

Water molecules have been detected in the Moon’s surface by NASA’s flying Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA). Researchers found traces of the life-sustaining substance in one of the largest lunar craters visible from Earth, the Clavius Crater. This ancient impact site receives a significant portion of sunlight compared to other areas of the Moon, which suggests that lunar water might not be limited to shadowy sites at the Moon’s poles. 

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

The findings were published October 26 in Nature Astronomy.

Water, humanity, and the Moon 

The key to how water could survive such a harsh lunar environment might be related to another harsh reality on the Moon: micrometeorites. These small pieces of space rock — only a few hundredths of an inch or so wide — rain down on the lunar surface, potentially forming beadlike glass structures upon impact. 

It’s these structures that the researchers think could trap and protect water molecules from sunlight. Alternatively, the researchers say, the water molecules could be caught between grains of lunar soil that shields them from sunlight. And depending on what exactly is protecting the newfound water from the Sun, scientists think astronauts may eventually be able to mine it.

However, it’s important to note that the amount of surface uncovered is still rather small. NASA compares the amount to 100 times less than is found in the Sahara Desert. So, researchers aren’t quite sure what these findings mean for supporting a sustainable human presence on the Moon. 

The new find marks the first time SOFIA — a modified Boeing 747 mounted with a 100-inch reflecting telescope — has looked at the Moon. Follow-up flights by the aircraft will search for additional water signatures within sunlit portions of the Moon. The results will then be used to inform future NASA lunar missions, including NASA’s Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER).