Water in Space

At H2Bid, we enjoy telling our readers about new challenges in water management, innovative technologies that could address the planet’s water needs and issues that relate to wastewater management. To start 2012, however, we’d like to expose our readers to a new topic – water in space. The search for water on Mars has been in the news a great deal in the pat few years with NASA’s twin rovers looking for evidence of ancient lakes and oceans on the red planet. In the context of Mars, finding water is critical to understanding if life could have once existed on Mars. Mars is only one facet in the broader search for water in space, however.

Worldwide, the major space agencies are actively looking for water in space. The reason is fairly simple: water is critical to all life, as we know it. Understanding where water exists provides scientists with a clue as to the potential frequency of life in the universe and also a roadmap to find search for that life. Beyond the academic search for life far outside our solar system, understanding where water exists in Earth’s own neighborhood allows for more freedom when it comes to human exploration of the solar system in the coming decades. If we had to take our water with us wherever we went, our journeys would likely be limited to near-Earth orbit and the moon.

In that spirit, and considerably closer to home than Mars, scientists are scouring Earth’s own moon for water. The moon is a logical staging point for future exploration and identifying resources available on or just below its surface would reduce the risk of basing humans on the moon. In 2009, NASA crashed the LCROSS lunar impact probe into a permanently-shadowed crater near the moon’s south pole. A small satellite remained in orbit to observe the impact and analyze the debris kicked up in the process. Based on these observations, NASA estimates that there are likely one billion gallons of water in that crater, alone. With several other permanently-shadowed craters dotting the moon’s surface, it’s likely that the moon holds a significant amount of water.

Scientists believe that the water has existed as ice for billions of years, possibly originating from comet strikes and other impacts. Currently the Europeans and the Japanese are joining with NASA to probe the moon further for water, metals and fuel sources that could further sustain a human presence. In addition, these same agencies are looking at asteroids for water and metals, as well. It may well be that our solar system is a much wetter location than we previously assumed it was.

A bit further out, past the moon and the asteroid belt, is Jupiter’s moon Europa. Space probes that have flown by this moon have been able to photograph and analyze Europa’s surface. Indications are that, under a layer of ice that comprises its surface, Europa may be home to a liquid-water ocean. Scientists theorize that the constant pull and tug from Jupiter’s gravity likely heats this inner ocean and lets it stay in a liquid state. NASA and other agencies are currently conceptualizing an unmanned mission to Europa to determine if a liquid ocean does exist and to probe that ocean, should it be present. Space agencies are looking at lakes buried under glaciers, such as Lake Vostok in Antarctica, as suitable testing sites for refining the probes that may eventually travel to Europa.

Even further from Earth, NASA has discovered what may be the largest, most ancient body of water in the entire universe. The water is in a cloud around a huge black hole that is in the process of sucking in matter and spraying out energy, and the waves of energy the black hole releases have been making water by mixing hydrogen and oxygen atoms together in the waves. NASA estimates that the volume of water in orbit is over 140 trillion times as much water as exists in all forms on Earth. That’s a stunning amount of water that is difficult to even imagine! This water won’t help solve Earth’s water woes, however; at 12 billion light years from our planet, it is unlikely that humans will ever visit this “ocean in space”.

While humans may never visit the ocean orbiting a black hole billions of light years from our home, the fact that such water is detectable and present does give us confidence that water may be very prevalent in our universe. The recent findings on the moon and the possibility of an ocean under Europa’s ice indicate that water may, in fact, be everywhere. If that were the case, long term human space exploration and eventual pilgrimages to the stars may become a reality instead of science fiction. In the meantime, however, there are plenty of near term problems to be solved right here, on planet Earth.