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Where is all the water? These missions will look for signs of life on other worlds

Nasa’s SOFIA observatory is just one of the missions looking for potential resources and signs of habitability on the Moon and other worlds

An illustration of Nasa’s Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover, or VIPER. VIPER is a mobile robot that will roam around the Moon’s south pole looking for water ice. (Credits: Nasa/Ames Research Center/Daniel Rutter)

When Nasa announced earlier this week that water could possibly be found in more regions of the Moon than previously expected, a lot of the attention was focused on the SOFIA observatory, which was used to make this exciting discovery on the lunar surface.

SOFIA, or the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, is actually an airborne observatory, part of a joint project between Nasa and the German Aerospace Centre. Interestingly, SOFIA is a Boeing 747SP aircraft modified to carry a 2.7-meter reflecting telescope.

The observatory flies into the stratosphere, at around 38,000-45,000 feet, which puts it above most of Earth’s infrared-blocking atmosphere. This allows astronomers to study the solar system and much more in ways that are not possible with ground-based telescopes or observatories. This was, in fact, the first time that SOFIA looked at the Moon for observations. But it isn’t the only scientific instrument being used or designed by astronomers to look for potential resources on other worlds.


VIPER, short for Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover, is a lunar rover slated to reach the Moon’s surface in late 2023. This mobile robot is expected to land at the Moon’s South Pole, where it will search for water ice and other potential resources. Whatever data VIPER collects will be used by Nasa to assess where the Moon’s water ice is most likely to be found and will be easiest to access. According to the space agency, this would make VIPER the first-ever resource mapping mission on another celestial body.

The rover is roughly the size of a golf cart and will scour some of the permanently shadowed craters on the lunar surface for water ice. There will be three on-board spectrometers and a 1-metre drill that will help VIPER in taking these scientific readings. One of these spectrometers is the MSolo, or Mass Spectrometer Observing Lunar Operations—a commercial off-the-shelf mass spectrometer that is modified to work in space. MSolo will be used to identify molecules on the surface of the Moon. Earlier this month, researchers working at Nasa’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida installed a radiator in MSolo, which will help keep the instrument’s temperature stable in the Moon’s harsh environment.

The other two spectrometers on board the rover will be the NSS (Neutron Spectrometer System) and NIRVSS (Near-Infrared Volatiles Spectrometer System). While the former will look for hydrogen levels in the Moon’s subsurface, NIRVSS—which is pronounced "nervous"—will be able to tell the nature and composition of the hydrogen.

This artist's rendering shows Nasa's Europa Clipper spacecraft, which is being developed for a launch sometime in the 2020s. (Credit: Nasa/JPL-Caltech)
This artist's rendering shows Nasa's Europa Clipper spacecraft, which is being developed for a launch sometime in the 2020s. (Credit: Nasa/JPL-Caltech)

Europa Clipper

There is another distant moon that might possibly have conditions that support life. This moon is Europa, the smallest of the four moons that orbit Jupiter. Now, Europa has a completely icy surface. But scientists believe that beneath its surface, Europa holds a saltwater ocean thought to contain about twice as much water as Earth’s global ocean. According to the mission’s official website, scientists are “almost certain” about the ocean’s presence, which makes Europa “the most promising place in our solar system to find present-day environments suitable for some form of life beyond Earth”.

There’s no fixed launch date for the Europa Clipper spacecraft based on current timelines, but the mission is scheduled to launch sometime in the 2020s. The orbiter will conduct a detailed survey of Europa by making about 45 close passes over it. With each flyby, the spacecraft will change its flightpath to eventually survey the entire moon.

As with most missions, the Europa Clipper orbiter will have a host of on-board scientific instruments: cameras, spectrometers, a magnetometer and an ice-penetrating radar that will search for water within and below Europa’s icy surface. According to the mission’s website, the orbiter will also be equipped with an infrared instrument to measure surface temperatures and a dust analyzer to study the tiny fragments of Europa that are “blasted off” the surface by micrometeorites.

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