Tag Archives: space program

Water Found on the Moon’s Sunlit Surface

Using the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) NASA researchers have made a stunning discovery regarding the Moon, finding that water is present on the natural satellite’s dayside, as well as its colder nightside. Hydrogen traces had previously been found at the lunar south pole, which experiences near-constant sunlight, but researchers did not believe this was related to water molecules.

This illustration highlights the Moon’s Clavius Crater with an illustration depicting water trapped in the lunar soil there, along with an image of NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) that found sunlit lunar water. (Credits: NASA)
This illustration highlights the Moon’s Clavius Crater with an illustration depicting water trapped in the lunar soil there, along with an image of NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) that found sunlit lunar water. (Credits: NASA)

At a virtual press conference researchers Paul Hertz, Astrophysics Division director at NASA Headquarters, Washington, Jacob Bleacher, chief exploration scientist for the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters, Casey Honniball, a postdoctoral fellow at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland, and Naseem Rangwala, project scientist for the SOFIA mission, NASA’s Ames Research Center, Silicon Valley, California, discussed the findings with journalists from across the globe.

“We had indications that H2O – the familiar water we know – might be present on the sunlit side of the Moon,” says Hertz.  “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 team’s results could change our fundamental understanding of Earth’s largest natural satellite, and also how water forms and survives in the depths of space.

The findings are significant as previously NASA had believed that water could only be found on the Moon’s nightside and in deep cavernous craters, where it may be hard to reach. Scientists had believed that water of the sunlit side of the Moon would be boiled away as a result of the lack of atmosphere and from constant exposure to the sun.

Casey Honniball offers two possible explanations as to how this water found itself at the lunar south pole; suggesting that it could have been delivered by solar winds, or by micrometeorite impacts.

If the later is the case it could relate to two possible mechanisms. Not only could micrometeorites deliver water to the surface, but the heat from these impacts could also fuse together two hydroxyl molecules, thus creating a water molecule. If this is the case, the water is likely to be sealed within tiny glass beads, about the size of a pencil tip created by the immense heat of impact.

If the water is locked up in these glass beads, they would provide an excellent protective measure to prevent water from being lost to space or evaporating as a result of the Moon’s harsh conditions.

Scientists using NASA’s telescope on an airplane, the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, discovered water on a sunlit surface of the Moon for the first time. SOFIA is a modified Boeing 747SP aircraft that allows astronomers to study the solar system and beyond in ways that are not possible with ground-based telescopes. Molecular water, H2O, was found in Clavius Crater, one of the largest craters visible from Earth in the Moon’s southern hemisphere. This discovery indicates that water may be distributed across the lunar surface, and not limited to cold, shadowed places.
Credits: NASA/Ames Research Center

How Much Water Have NASA Found?

Previous measurements of hydrogen signals from the moon’s sunlit side had been associated with hydroxyl molecules, which at a 3-micron scale at which observations were performed, is indistinguishable from water. SOFIA’s observation was conducted at an improved 6-micron resolution, thus allowing astronomers to confirm the presence of water.

“Prior to the SOFIA observations, we knew there was some kind of hydration,” says Honniball, the lead author who published the results from her graduate thesis work at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa in Honolulu. “But we didn’t know how much, if any, was actually water molecules – like we drink every day – or something more like drain cleaner.

“Water has a distinct chemical fingerprint at 6 microns that hydroxyl does not have.”

Naseem Rangwala points out the amounts of water found, equivalent to roughly a 12oz bottle of water in a cubic meter, is extremely spread out.

Whilst the observations are only of the Moon’s surface, if the water is contained in glass beads then it is expected that these beads could find their way deeper beneath the lunar surface.

SOFIA will now conduct follow-up observations looking for water in additional sunlit locations and during different lunar phases to learn more about how the water is produced, stored, and moved across the Moon. 


SOFIA is the world’s largest airborne observatory, a modified 747 that cruises high in the Earth’s stratosphere. From an altitude of 38,000 — 40,000 feet SOFIA’s onboard 2.7-meter (106-inch) reflecting telescope is able to capture a clear view of the Universe and objects in the solar system in the infrared spectrum, untroubled by the obscuring effect of 99% of the atmosphere’s water vapour. It is this unobscured view that has allowed it to capture data that led to this astounding new discovery about water on the Moon.

SOFIA-- here seen soaring over the snow-covered Sierra Nevada mountains with its telescope door open during a test flight--has allowed NASA to make a major new moon discovery. SOFIA is a modified Boeing 747SP aircraft. (NASA/Jim Ross)
SOFIA– here seen soaring over the snow-covered Sierra Nevada mountains with its telescope door open during a test flight–has allowed NASA to make a major new moon discovery. SOFIA is a modified Boeing 747SP aircraft. (NASA/Jim Ross)

SOFIA’s main purpose is to observe the Universe in the infrared spectrum, spotting objects and events that aren’t observable in visible light. The fact that it is mounted aboard a modified 747 means it can make observations from any point on Earth, a feature that has made it particularly useful for spotting transient events. This includes eclipse–like occurrences of Pluto, Titan–a moon of Saturn, and MU69–a Kuiper belt object also known as Arrokoth, which earned the nickname the ‘space snowman’ due to its bowling pin-like shape.

What is astounding about SOFIA’s observation is that it was made during a test of the telescope as the renovated 747 flew over the Nevada Desert on its way back to its home base in California. The telescope itself isn’t usually used to view relatively bright objects such as the Moon. Instead, it would usually be used to observed dim objects such as black holes, star clusters, and distant galaxies.

“It was, in fact, the first time SOFIA has looked at the Moon, and we weren’t even completely sure if we would get reliable data, but questions about the Moon’s water compelled us to try,” says Rangwala, SOFIA’s project scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley. “It’s incredible that this discovery came out of what was essentially a test, and now that we know we can do this, we’re planning more flights to do more observations.”

Water, Water, Everywhere. But is there a drop to drink?

This new discovery contributes to NASA’s efforts to learn about more about the Moon, in the process supporting its goal of deep space exploration. The big question is how accessible is this water and can it be used by a future mission?

In this multi-temporal illumination map of the lunar south pole, where the team has discovered the telltale fingerprint of water molecules. Shackleton crater (19 km diameter) is in the centre, the south pole is located approximately at 9 o’clock on its rim. The map was created from images from the camera aboard the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.
Credits: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University

The researchers are clear that answering many of these remaining questions will require getting down to the surface of the Moon The data collected by SOFIA will be of use to these surface mission, particularly for the future NASA mission  Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER). VIPER will take to the surface of the Moon to create a water resource map of its surface, which can then be used by future missions.

“Water is a valuable resource, for both scientific purposes and for use by our explorers,” explains Bleacher. “If we can use the resources at the Moon, then we can carry less water and more equipment to help enable new scientific discoveries.”

If water can be mined from the Moon, it could fulfil a variety of use, including the synthesis of oxygen for astronauts, and even the creation of fuel. Understanding what form the water is in is key to understanding how to extract it.

“Finding water that is easier to reach is important to us,” says Bleacher. “If it is locked up in glass beads it may take more energy to retrieve than if it locked up in the soil.” That means NASA will be looking to discover what state the water is in.

All this comes ahead of NASA’s 2024 Artemis program which will see the first woman and the next man sent to the lunar surface. This will be in preparation for NASA’s next major goal, human exploration of Mars, which could begin as early as the 2030s.

In addition to these practical applications for future space exploration, a deeper understanding of the Moon enables astronomers, cosmologists, and astrophysicists to piece together a better picture of the broader history of the inner solar system and the possibility of water existing deeper in space.


Book Review: ‘Spaceman: An Astronaut’s Unlikely Journey to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe’

Spaceman: An Astronaut’s Unlikely Journey to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe
by Mike Massimino
The MIT Press, 246 pages // Buy on Amazon

If you ever plan on becoming an astronaut, or if you would simply like to know what it’s really like to go out in space — Spaceman is the book for you.

If you don’t know who Mike Massimino is, then you probably haven’t been following the space program closely. In addition to many contributions, Massimino is one of the spacewalkers who repaired the Hubble Telescope, and he’s also the first person to Tweet from space. Currently working as a professor of mechanical engineering at Columbia University, he flew on two space shuttle missions, in 2002 and 2009 respectively. But more than anything else, he’s a kid who wanted to be an astronaut — and who made it.

Massimino’s tweet ushered a new age of space social media.

For someone with a career as lengthy and impressive as Massimino, you’d expect a book to be filled with NASA experiences, awesome adventures, and dazzling science — but the first half of the book is just about actually getting into the space program. I absolutely love that!

We cherish astronauts and we talk a lot about them, but we don’t talk nearly as much about becoming an astronaut, and it’s a shame.

So many people dream of becoming an astronaut, but few truly consider pursuing that dream. We see astronauts as heroes, but almost intangible figures, certainly not regular people like you and I. Well, Mike Massimino takes that stereotype and slams it to the ground — with the necessary work, the necessary motivation, and a healthy attitude, anyone can become an astronaut.

The truth is, as Massimino himself puts it, that he is a regular guy. Just like each and every one of us, he had his fears, his self-doubt, and his failures. But he toughed it out. When he felt like he had nothing more to give, he found that extra something to push him forth. His dream of becoming an astronaut had been almost destroyed time and time again, and yet time and time again, he overcame the hurdles. Going through the book, you can almost feel how hard he worked and how devastating the shortcomings were. Honestly, if the book had ended right after he became an astronaut, I wouldn’t be sorry at all. But it goes on.

It goes on to show how more than anything else, astronauts are a family. They stick up for each other and they’re much more than just a team. When they’re successful, they’re all successful together and when they fail, they all fail together. I didn’t think the story can become even more heartwarming, but it does. To me, this was also the most surprising bit of the book. Here at ZME, we talk a lot about NASA’s accomplishments, their studies, their innovative space missions, but we don’t really know that much about what goes on behind the scenes. Massimino offers a candid, authentic recollection of significant events which he and his colleagues went through, and it goes to show that just as much as an astronaut, Massimino is also an excellent storyteller. He makes you want to work at NASA. He inspires you to take a long look at the stars, and reach for them.

To sum things up, this is truly an amazing book written not only by an author who’s been up there with the best of them, but who also has the necessary communication skills to know how to convey his feelings. A book for people of all ages and all background, it’s a must-read for anyone interested in space — and a bible for anyone wanting to become an astronaut.

Atlantis lands, ending 30 years of space program

In what can only be described as an emotional moment, the space shuttle Atlantis landed before dawn at Kennedy Space Center’s Runway 15, ending 30 years of space shuttle flights.

“Atlantis is home,” said NASA control moments after its arrival at 5:56 a.m. ET. “Its journey complete. A moment to be savored.”

Savored it was, but there sour taste of regret was also present.

“We really wish we could share with everybody this really cool glow,” Commander Chris Ferguson radioed as he and his crew entered the Earth’s atmosphere in a plasma of heated air before touching down. “We’re doing fantastic.”

The landing, as perfect as it was, remains bittersweet, as knowingly sorrowful NASA employees greeted the fabulous space shuttle for one last time. Everybody recalled the incredibly thrilling moment when Apollo 11 astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon, inspiring the next generation to launch and perpetuate the space program; now, this era has come to an end.

“It’s definitely the end of the era. The shuttle has been a magnificent flying machine, an engineering marvel, but it has consigned Americans for two generations to low-Earth orbit. I think that’s a negative.”

That is a matter of debate, especially since now, Americans will have to hitch Russian rides for suborbital travel, until the arguably better option of relying on private commercial companies for space flight appears.

“I hope we won’t lose a whole generation. Kids get excited by exploration,” Dick said. “I think NASA, in some ways, is doing the right thing by off-loading the routine work of the space shuttle. The only problem is we’re a long way from getting something that will take us out of low-Earth orbit.”

“The Space Shuttle has been the iconic symbol of NASA for the last 30 years,” NASA spokesman Allard Beutel said. “We’re going to have a different icon. We do aeronautics, climate research, deep space exploration with our telescopes, planetary observations with probes and rovers.”

Chinese space program posters

In a recent post I showed you some absolutely stunning Soviet space program posters, and guess what – we’re back with more space posters, only this time, it’s the other communist titan on the planet: China.

What is striking about these posters are the children; while the Soviets emphasized on the power of the people and their national heroes (Yuri Gagarin, most notably), the Chinese had a different approach. Why ? I have absolutely no idea.

After the USA and the USSR, China became the third nation to send a person into outer space, and this kind of propaganda was extremely beneficial for the communist regime, especially since space appeals to the immagination and dreams of people so much.

Furthermore, this kind of exploration and scientific advancements are seen as extremely effective methods to fight against the supersitious and religious behaviour, an important element in China.

The first Chinese man to walk into outer space was taikonaut Yang Liwei, who became an instant hero after this, having 10.2 million sets of commemorative stamps being issued in his honour.

Furthermore, in 2006 the Chinese started a woman astronaut selection program, with promising results.

An image of the Chang'e-3 Chinese Lunar Rover presented at the IEEE's International Conference on Robotics and Automation in Shanghai. (c) IEEE Spectrum

China on the moon: rover by 2013, samples by 2017 and manned landing by 2025

An image of the Chang'e-3 Chinese Lunar Rover presented at the IEEE's International Conference on Robotics and Automation in Shanghai. (c) IEEE Spectrum

An image of the Chang'e-3 Chinese Lunar Rover presented at the IEEE's International Conference on Robotics and Automation in Shanghai. (c) IEEE Spectrum

How’s your Mandarin? If it’s as rusty as mine, we’d do best and brush up on it since it seems we’re heading towards an age of Chinese domination. Capitalizing on its tremendous financial growth, China has some incredible programs which officials hope to catapult the people’s republic in front of the new space age.

A few weeks back, I told you all about China’s plans of building its own space station by 2020 – very ambitious plans indeed, but Chinese space program officials have even more stellar goals in sight, namely plans to send a robot to the moon within two years and also to bring a lunar sample home by 2017. The plans were made public by Chinese officials att he international robotics conference in Shanghai this week.

That’s not all either, according to Ziyuan Ouyang, the chief scientist of China’s lunar exploration program, stated that after the lunar sample mission, the agency’s main goal will be to put a Chinese astronaut on the moon and also build a permanent outpost on the Earth’s natural satellite. A particular date for this goal is this very ambigous, but last month it seems a Chinese officials came out and stated that China will put a man on the moon by 2025.

Last year, in October, China launched its second moon orbiter, as part of its newly risen lunar program. The Chang’e 2, as it was dubbed, has seen a great deal of improvements compared to its predecessor, including a more powerful rocket that delivered the probe to the moon more quickly. Chang’e 3 is supposed to launch sometime in 2013 and land in Sinus Iridium, where it will deploy an autonomous rover.

The robot will be able to choose its own routes, avoid obstacles, and perform science experiments with a suite of sensors, including cameras, x-ray and infrared spectrometers, and a ground-penetrating radar. For power, the Chinese lunar rover will use solar panels, as well as a supplementary power source in the form of a plutonium-238 nuclear battery, the same type installed on the forthcoming Mars Science Laboratory rover.

Concerning the 2017 lunar sample mission, China will launch a temporary lunar drill, which will alight on the surface, take a sample and then rush back to Earth for data collection.

Ultimately, China wants its own moon base by 2025. Some US congressmen issued a bill in which they directed NASA to build its own moon base by 2020; it won’t probably last, and as a key difference the Chinese usually keep to their word.

If you still fancy a trip to the moon, remember there’s still a chance to get on the 2015 private flight round and back. Oh, it’s only $150 million a ticket.


NASA fuels Endeavour for one last round

As I was telling you a few days ago, after Discovery, Endeavour is also preparing for its last trip, led by space veteran Mark Kelly. The weird thing is that Endeavour, which will be retired after today’s last mission, is at the moment also NASA‘s youngest orbiter, which kind of speaks a lot about NASA’s capacity to modernize its fleet. The thunderstorm that took place last night provided some spectacular photos, but it probably won’t affect the launch in any way.

space shuttle Endeavour

Endeavour is set for launch today, April 29, at 3:47 p.m. EDT (1947 GMT) from the Kennedy space center, in what seems to be like good weather. However, if clouds or some other meteorological problem is present, the launch will be delayed, but not too much.

Endeavour space shuttle

The orbiter will travel to the International Space Station (ISS) for a two week visit. Its goal is to deliver a $2 billion astrophysics experiment designed to hunt for exotic subatomic particles.

The shuttle’s whole crew consists of six veterans, including pilot Gregory H. Johnson and mission specialists Michael Fincke, Greg Chamitoff, Andrew Feustel, and European Space Agency astronaut Roberto Vittori, will be led by commander Mark Kelly.

Endeavour’s launch has drawn an impressive amount of public to the site, and all in all 700.000 people are expected to watch the launch – even though it’s scheduled on the same day as the big royal wedding between between Prince William and Kate Middleton in England. President Barack Obama, his wife Michele, and his two daughters will also be present at the launch; it is only the second time in history that a president will be present at a shuttle launch, after Bill Clinton’s visit in 1998.

Another high profile visitor will be Kelly’s wife, wounded Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who was tragically wounded after a failed assasination attempt when a gunman opened fire on her and others outside a Tucson, Ariz., grocery store. This was tragic not only for Kelly, but for the whole crew, who always sticks together:

“The crew has just done a tremendous job of staying on focus and being trained and ready to go fly,” NASA’s associate administrator for space operations, Bill Gerstenmaier, said during a press conference last week. “It’s a testimony to the entire crew’s ability to stay focused, to compartmentalize and to do what they need to do.”

The Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (the astrophysics experiment I was telling you about) will be installed on the space station with the goal of keeping an eye out for cosmic ray particles that might shed light on cosmic mysteries such as the invisible dark matter which has puzzled researchers for so long.

“It’s the premier physics experiment; it’s probably the most expensive thing ever flown by the space shuttle,” Kelly said in a NASA interview.

In addition to the spectrometer, Endeavour will also be carrying 14,000 pounds (6,350 kg) of spare supplies to outfit the space station for the era after the shuttles stop flying. To help install some of the equipment, an ambitious four space walks are scheduled, which will be finished in 14 days, but NASA says they are fine with a few extra days as well. Even if everything goes according to plan, the victory will be bittersweet at best, because this doesn’t only mark the end of Endeavour, but it marks the end of an era.

“We know the end is coming and we’re dealing with it,” shuttle launch director Mike Leinbach said. “The emotional aspect is very, very real and it’s very difficult to put into words, but I think all of Kennedy Space Center got a big boost when we got the word that were going to be able to keep Atlantis.”

After Endeavour’s last flight, NASA plans one more shuttle flight, the June launch of Atlantis, and after that, the space shuttle program will come to an end. That’s it, no more Discovery, no more Endeavour, no more Atlantis; no more space orbiters for NASA. I don’t know about you, but it’s pretty emotional where I’m standing.