Water discoveries on the Moon and on Mars were made this week.. Find out how these studies help understand life on Earth and on other worlds.
In an earlier story, we talked about the abundance of water on Earth. Scientists believe that the fact that the Earth’s surface is about two-thirds water is a crucial factor in life’s origin on our planet.
Although nobody really knows what life on other planets would be like, it’s hard to picture life forms that aren’t water-based. At least, it’s hard for us, given the central role that water plays in our ecosystems.
Water Discoveries on Mars and on the Moon
A couple of other water discoveries have come to light recently. One involves water on Mars, and the other is about water on the Moon.
The first of these water discoveries is about what Mars may have been like in the distant past. Meteorites can tell scientists a lot about the early solar system. If you recall our previous story, meteorites were at the bottom of a finding suggesting that water has always been abundant on Earth.
A new study in the journal Science Advances uses a meteorite to provide insights into what seems to be a water discovery on ancient Mars. A school of thought is emerging that water is a natural part of planet formation, rather than being brought to planets through collisions with bodies like comets.
Two Meteorites Landed in the Sahara Desert
About ten years ago, two meteorites landed in the Sahara desert. Their names are NWA 7034 and NWA 7533, where NWA is short for Northwest Africa. Scientists located them in 2011 and 2012, respectively.
Scientists analyzed both of them and found that they were from Mars. They’re a new type of Martian meteorite, and they consist of several combined rock fragments.
A research team led by Professor Zhengbin Deng analyzed a tiny 50-gram fragment from NWA 7533. It was a costly undertaking.
Going Rate for Meteorites is About $10,000 per Gram
Meteorite fragments don’t come cheap. The going rate is about $10,000 per gram. A gram of gold costs about $60.
Scientists knew that there’d been water on Mars for a long time. They can tell by the dried-up river beds on the Martian surface that there was water there for at least 3.7 years. This new meteorite study takes us further back in time.
According to chemical analysis on the meteorite fragment, water existed on Mars going back 4.4 billion years. Team member Professor Takashi Mikouchi of the University of Tokyo explains, “Igneous clasts, or fragmented rock, in the meteorite are formed from magma and are commonly caused by impacts and oxidation.”
“Oxidation Could Have Occurred if Water was Present”
Professor Mikouchi went on to say that “This oxidation could have occurred if there was water present on or in the Martian crust 4.4 billion years ago during an impact that melted part of the crust.”
The planets in our solar system all formed around the same time, 4.5 billion years ago. This water discovery from Mars suggests that water was abundant from the time the planet formed, just as it was on Earth.
This suggests water is one of the substances that arise whenever a planet develops instead of being carried there by collisions with comets and asteroids, as previously thought.
Water Much More Common on the Moon Than Thought
This week’s other water discovery is that water is much more common on the Moon than scientists had thought. NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) has identified large volumes of water on the side of the Moon we can see from Earth.
Planetary astronomers had thought that water could only exist in shaded places on the lunar surface. Now, SOFIA has found water molecules in the enormous Clavius Crater in the Moon’s Southern Hemisphere.
Previous studies had shown that there was hydrogen in the lunar soil. Still, they couldn’t distinguish if it was water or its close chemical cousin hydroxyl. SOFIA has demonstrated that it’s water with a concentration is between 100 and 412 parts per million.
About One Percent of Water Levels in the Sahara Desert
That’s about the same as is if you took a 350 ml (12-ounce) bottle of water and mixed it into a cubic metre of soil. That’s not a lot of water by Earth standards. It’s about 1% of the water levels we see in the sands of the Sahara desert.
SOFIA isn’t a spacecraft. It’s a portable, 106-inch telescope that NASA mounts onto a modified 747 jetliner. The jumbo jet can take SOFIA well above the water vapour in Earth’s atmosphere to better observe infrared light.
Using its sensitive infrared camera, SOFIA was able to detect water molecules in the sunlit Clavius Crater. Water in the lunar soil is puzzling. Without an atmosphere to contain, water would usually just drift off into space.
“Something Is Generating the Water, and Trapping It There”
As Casey Honniball, a post-doctoral fellow at the Goddard Space Flight Center, explained, “Something is generating the water, and something must be trapping it there.” That’s a mystery that has generated several schools of thought in terms of an explanation.
SOFIA wasn’t designed to look at the Moon or make water discoveries. Usually, SOFIA looks out into deep space at galaxies, black holes and star clusters.
Pointing SOFIA at the Moon Was An Experiment
Pointing SOFIA at the Moon was an experiment to see if it could accurately track an object the size of the Moon. As Naseem Rangwala, SOFIA’s project scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley put it, ““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.”
A water discovery on the Moon, even in such scarce quantities, is exciting for NASA. They hope to be able to draw on it as a resource on a future moon base.
Water has always been sacred to humans because, throughout history, we’ve seen it as the giver of life. Each of the three recent discoveries about the origins of water on Earth and on other worlds gives us new insight into some of our most profound questions.
May Be Commonplace for Water to Form Along with Planets
It may be commonplace for water to form along with planets throughout the universe. Most planets may form with substantial water resources from the beginning. If that’s true, it may raise the chances of life existing somewhere beyond our world.
Both water discoveries are triggering further research. The finding that water existed on Mars much earlier than thought is prompting scientists to rethink how life originated on Earth and where it might exist elsewhere.
NASA is scheduling future lunar missions for SOFIA. They’ll be looking at other sunny places on the lunar surface and looking for water during different lunar phases.
We always have more to learn if we dare to know.
Water on ancient Mars
Early Oxidation of the Martian Crust Triggered by Impacts
NASA’s SOFIA Discovers Water on Sunlit Surface of Moon
Molecular water detected on the sunlit Moon by SOFIA
Astrobiology: 3 Questions We Need to Answer
Abundance of Water – Where Did It All Come From?
Intelligent Life on Other Planets: Odds of Finding It