Scientists have discovered water molecules on the surface of two asteroids for the first time. This discovery is an important milestone in understanding how water is distributed in our solar system. The breakthrough was made possible thanks to data collected by the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA).
SOFIA is the world’s largest airborne astronomical observatory jointly operated by NASA and the German Aerospace Center, but has since been retired. Scientists studied two asteroids called Iris and Massalia. They found water molecules on their surfaces. The research on this discovery has been published in The Planetary Science Journal.
Astronomy.com reports that both Iris and Massalia are rich in silicates. Water molecules were discovered trapped in glass formed by impacts or chemically bonded to other asteroid minerals. Scientists will use this discovery to better understand how water came to Earth.
Prior to this study, the SOFIA instrument had detected water in the southern region of the Moon. Although SOFIA detected a type of hydrogen on both the Moon and certain asteroids, it found difficulty distinguishing water from hydroxyl, which are closely related chemicals.
Arredondo and his team investigated around four asteroids: Parthenope, Melpomene, Iris and Massalia. While three of these asteroids showed absorption at a wavelength of 3 micrometers, Iris and Massalia showed absorption at 6 micrometers.
Ms Arredondo stated: “This is the first time water molecules have been found on the surface of an asteroid in space.” She described how her study was motivated by another team’s success in detecting water on the sunlit part of the Moon. Using SOFIA’s abilities, the goal was to find similar signs on other celestial objects.
“The spectral characteristics suggested that the amount of water on the asteroid is similar to what we find on the illuminated side of the Moon. “Similarly, water from asteroids can bind to minerals or soak into silicate, and can also become trapped or dissolved in silicate impact glass,” Arredondo explained.
Space.com reports that Iris and Massalia, which measure 199 km and 135 km in diameter respectively, follow comparable orbits. They travel an average distance of 2.39 astronomical units (AU) from the Sun, approximately the same distance as between the Sun and Earth.
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first published: February 16, 2024, 10:48 IST
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