Water Found On The Surface Of Asteroids For the First Time Ever

Scientists recently spotted water molecules on the surface of asteroids for the first time. This fascinating discovery revealed new ideas about water distribution within our solar system. Researchers made this discovery by studying four silicate-rich asteroids using data obtained by the retired Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA). 

SOFIA was built as a telescope-outfitted plane that flies at altitudes of 38,000–45,000 feet (11,582–13,716 meters) in the stratosphere. The plane was operated by NASA and the German Aerospace Center. The new study reports that observations made by SOFIA’s Faint Object InfraRed Camera (FORCAST) instrument revealed that two of the asteroids named Iris and Massalia possess a unique wavelength of light that shows the presence of water molecules at their surface.

“Asteroids are leftovers from the planetary formation process, so their compositions vary depending on where they formed in the solar nebula,” study lead author Anicia Arredondo, of the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, said in a statement. “Of particular interest is the distribution of water on asteroids, because that can shed light on how water was delivered to Earth.”

Why This discovery of water on the surface of asteroids is truly one of a kind

Scientists have previously detected water molecules in asteroid samples that were brought back to Earth. However, this is the first time astronomers are spotting the water molecules directly on the surface of asteroids in space. A past study revealed that SOFIA spotted similar traces of water molecules on the lunar surface. Hence, these traces of water on the moon’s surface exist in one of the largest craters in the southern hemisphere.

“We detected a feature that is unambiguously attributed to molecular water on the asteroids Iris and Massalia,” Arredondo said in the statement. “We based our research on the success of the team found molecular water on the sunlit surface of the moon. We thought we could use SOFIA to find this spectral signature on other bodies.”

The observations of the moon made by SOFIA showed about the equivalent of a 12-ounce bottle of water trapped in a cubic meter of soil across the moon’s surface. These observations also revealed that the water molecules are bound chemically in minerals.

During the recent study, the SwRI scientists discovered that the abundance of water on the two asteroids was similar to water molecules spotted on the moon’s surface and they could likely be bound to minerals just like water molecules on the moon, or adsorbed in silicate, the team suggests.

What You Should Know about the two asteroids

Data obtained by the Faint Object InfraRed Camera (FORCAST) instrument on the now-retired Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) revealed signs of water on the surface of two silicate-rich asteroids, named Iris and Massalia. (Image credit: Courtesy of NASA/Carla Thomas/SwRI)

Iris and Massalia measure about 124 miles (199 kilometers) and 84 miles (135 km) in diameter, respectively. They both have similar orbits and travel an average distance of 2.39 astronomical units (AU) from the sun.

“Anhydrous, or dry, silicate asteroids form close to the sun while icy materials coalesce farther out,” according to the statement. That’s because any water present on the surface of objects in the inner solar system was thought to evaporate from the heat of the sun. “Understanding the location of asteroids and their compositions tells us how materials in the solar nebula were distributed and have evolved since formation.”

The discovery of Iris and Massalia proves that some silicate asteroids can preserve their water on the surface of asteroids. The new study suggests that they may be more commonly seen in the inner solar system than scientists thought previously. Many scientists believe that asteroids are the basic source of water on Earth.

This implies that the space rocks’ minerals provided the basic elements of life on Earth as we know it today. Hence, learning more about the distribution of water through space will help researchers to know where to focus in searching for other lifeforms both within the solar system and beyond. Hence, should be expecting more findings to unveil more facts about water on the surface of these asteroids.

In addition, the researchers published their new findings on Feb 12, in the Planetary Science Journal.

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