What water on the moon means for the future of exploration

Water on the Moon
Water on the Moon

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. NASA/Daniel Rutter

This article originally appeared here on Salon.com

Earth news is a bit anxiety-provoking these days, which might be one reason why the Internet pulled out all the stops to communicate collective enthusiasm over the discovery of vast amounts of water on the moon.

The finding could be useful to humans who want to leave Earth immediately and live on the moon. (We’re only half-joking).

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While scientists previously suspected that water existed in the shadowy, cold parts of the moon — such as its poles, where it would stay frozen — a pair of studies published on Monday in the journal Nature Astronomy confirm that there is a large amount of water on its sunlit regions, too. 

“We had indications that H₂O – the familiar water we know – might be present on the sunlit side of the Moon,” Paul Hertz, director of the Astrophysics Division in the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington, said in a statement. “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.”

Yet even the data on water in the moon’s darker, colder regions was always iffy. Part of the challenge of finding water on the moon is that the Earth’s atmosphere, which has plenty of evaporated water, interferes with ground-based attempts to see water on the moon without the atmosphere interfering. Space telescopes or very high altitude telescopes can alleviate this problem. In this case, NASA used the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), an infrared observatory mounted on a Boeing 747 airplane, which takes observations from the air. SOFIA data suggests strongly that yes, water is present on the sunlit surface of the moon.

That’s particularly unusual given the temperature cycles on the moon: the moon during the day is a scalding 250 degrees Fahrenheit, well above water’s boiling point. So why doesn’t said water immediately evaporate? As explained in the study, titled “Molecular water detected on the sunlit Moon by SOFIA,” scientists detail evidence that hypothesizes the water observed may be trapped in naturally-formed glass on the moon’s sunlit regions. Being encased in glass means that the water is impervious to the heating and cooling cycles that would usually evaporate the water. Since the moon doesn’t have an atmosphere and there’s very little gravity, it’s impossible for water to just hang out on its surface like it does here on Earth.

The second study, titled “Micro Cold Traps on the Moon,” catalogs all the potential sites that are cold enough for ice to remain stable, and where water could exist without being trapped in glass.

“Our results suggest that water trapped at the lunar poles may be more widely