Nasa has provoked excitement across the world with the promise that it will reveal a “new discovery about the Moon” in a major announcement.
The space agency gave no details on what the announcement might be, apart from indicating that it “contributes to NASA’s efforts to learn about the Moon in support of deep space exploration” and had been made with Sofia, a converted Boeing 747 that works as a flying observatory.
But clues have begun to emerge about what the announcement could be about to reveal.
As part of the announcement of the press conference – which will take place next week – Nasa gave a full list of the participants. It will include four different people from across the space agency.
Three of them – Paul Hertz, Jacob Bleacher and Naseem Rangwala – are all senior members of staff at various parts of Nasa’s operations that appear to have been involved in the research. Together they represent Nasa’s astrophysics division and its Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, both based at Nasa’s headquarters, and the Sofia mission that helped with the discovery.
But the other person on the list is perhaps the most telling. The briefing will also include Casey Honniball, a postdoctoral fellow at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland.
As the blog Nasa Watch points out, Dr Honniball has conducted extensive research into how we might go about finding water on the Moon.
Her PhD dissertation, which is available online and is titled ‘Infrared Remote Sensing Of Volatile Components On The Moon’, includes a report that she and her team had “developed a new approach to detect the actual water molecule on the Moon”, with the technique relying on infrared astronomy.
It goes on to make clear that the method had been put to the test using Sofia, or the Stratospheric Observatory For Infrared Astronomy, which would be needed because such observations are only possible from an “airborne infrared observatory”.
“Using data from SOFIA we report the first direct detection of the water molecule on the illuminated lunar surface," she writes at the end of the abstract.
In August, Dr Honniball was also the lead author on a paper titled ‘Telescopic Observations of Lunar Hydration: Variations and Abundance’ and published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets. As the title suggests, that paper explored in the detail the possibilities of water on the Moon, and how it might behave.
As such, the list of names in the briefing would seem to suggest that the announcement has something to do with the detection of water on the Moon. While there has been evidence that there may be water there before, it is still not definitive, and researchers know relatively little about how that water might behave or where it could be found.
As Nasa’s announcement indicated, the discovery of water on the Moon would be of keen interest as the space agency prepares to head back there, and to use a potential lunar base as a way of travelling deeper into the solar system, such as to Mars.
Water would be key to such missions, acting both as a way of hydrating astronauts and a fuel for sending them either back to Earth or on to other planets.
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