Water on moon: Opens horizon of life beyond Earth, say scientists

After NASA’s airborne telescope found far more water on the moon than previously thought, The Electronics spoke to scientists to understand what this means for future space missions

National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) airborne telescope — Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) — has found water concentration on the sunlit surface of the moon. This discovery had already raised questions on the generation and survival of water molecules in lunar space where the daytime temperature on the sun-facing side reaches above boiling point. The Electronics went a step further to find out what the future holds for space missions after this finding on Clavius Crater, the largest craters visible from Earth on the moon’s southern hemisphere.

“NASA has achieved an outstanding feat by this discovery. Not only is it great in terms of space research, but it also opens up the horizon of life beyond Earth,” said a scientist from Indian Space Research Organisation who did not wish to be named.

“While I can’t comment on how possible it is to think about human settlement there since it’s still in a very initial phase, I do think it can be a possibility. But, of course, that would be possible only if it was backed by lots of research and experiments,” the scientist added.

Previous observations through numerous lunar probes, including Chandrayaan-1, had found evidence of hydration in the sunnier parts of the moon, however none were able to distinguish if it was H2O molecules or OH. The recent study revealed that the water concentration size of about a 12-ounce bottle is trapped under the cubic meter of soil spread across the investigated lunar surface.

“This discovery challenges our understanding of the lunar surface and raises intriguing questions about resources relevant for deep space exploration,” said Paul Hertz, director of the Astrophysics Division in the Science Mission Directorate at NASA headquarters in Washington in a press release.

When it comes to human settlement on moon, scientists think it’s a step in that direction. “The findings are a foundation ground on whether the water would be enough to sustain human life. With contribution from NASA and ISRO (through Chandrayaan mission), we can further find out how useful the water will be, and whether it will be enough to build colonies on the moon,” said JK Prasad, former scientist from Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre.

Experts also plan on making this finding a basis for future deep space explorations. “With the recent work of NASA, we can escalate our deep space explorations in the future. Abundance of water would be a definite route towards habitating or colonising the moon or any other planets,” said Alok Shrivastava, deputy director, mechanical systems area, UR Rao Satellite Center (URSC).

The possible future missions on planets center around the search of heavier and lighter elements in space, added Shrivastava. “The extreme climate conditions of the moon’s surface leave much to be explored. For example, the helium found in the southern hemisphere of the moon can be used as a clean source of energy and can enable space agencies to build nuclear power plants. Moreover, the deep space explorations initiated in the future will work on the possibility of finding life on the lunar surfaces,” said the URSC scientist.

NASA is all set to send a manned space flight under the Artemis mission to the moon in 2024 making it the first one in 50 years. And this time it will see the first woman step on the lunar surface. The space agency is hoping to establish “sustainable human presence” on the moon by the end of this decade.

“There are still places unexplored on the lunar surface, much like the sunlit areas where the water was found, which the manned missions would be able to contribute to in the coming years,” added Prasad.


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