Musk’s SpaceX wins NASA’s $2.9 billion moon lander contract

NASA awarded billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk’s space company SpaceX a $2.9 billion contract to build a spacecraft to bring astronauts to the moon as early as 2024, the agency said on Friday, picking it over Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and defense contractor Dynetics Inc.

Bezos and Musk – the world’s first and third richest people respectively, according to Forbes – were competing to lead humankind’s return to the moon for the first time since 1972.

For all latest news, follow The Daily Star’s Google News channel.

Musk’s SpaceX bid alone while (AMZN.O) founder Bezos’s Blue Origin partnered with Lockheed Martin Corp (LMT.N), Northrop Grumman Corp (NOC.N) and Draper. Dynetics is a unit of Leidos Holdings Inc.(LDOS.N)

“NASA Rules!!” Musk wrote on Twitter after the announcement.

The US space agency awarded the contract for the first commercial human lander, part of its Artemis program. NASA said the lander will carry two American astronauts to the lunar surface.

“We should accomplish the next landing as soon as possible,” Steve Jurczyk, NASA’s acting administrator, said during the video conference announcement.

“If they hit their milestones, we have a shot at 2024,” Jurczyk added.

NASA said SpaceX’s Starship includes a spacious cabin and two airlocks for astronaut moon walks and that its architecture is intended to evolve to a fully reusable launch and landing system designed for travel to the Moon, Mars and other destinations in space.

SpaceX also responded on Twitter, writing, “We are humbled to help @NASAArtemis usher in a new era of human space exploration.”

Unlike the Apollo landings from 1969 to 1972 – the only human visits to the moon’s surface – NASA is gearing up for a longer-term lunar presence that it envisions as a steppingstone to an even more ambitious plan to send astronauts to Mars. NASA is leaning heavily on private companies built around shared visions for space exploration.

SpaceX will be required to make a test flight of the lander to the moon before humans make the journey, NASA official Lisa Watson-Morgan told reporters.

NASA had been expected to winnow the lunar lander contest to two companies by the end of April, but instead it picked only SpaceX, a move that deepens their cooperation. On Thursday, NASA said it would send its crew to the International Space Station aboard a SpaceX rocket on April 22.

The agency aims to create regular service to the moon and said it will have a separate competition for that contract.

“We have to be able to provide for recurring lunar services,” said Mark Kirasich, deputy associate administrator for NASA’s Advanced Exploration Systems division.

The announcement added to an extraordinary run for Musk, who has turned electric car maker Tesla Inc. (TSLA.O) into the world’s most-valuable automaker, with a market capitalization of $702 billion.

Musk has become a one-person technology conglomerate, launching or controlling companies pursuing space flight, electric cars, neural implants and subterranean tunnel boring.

A factor in the choice of SpaceX was “what’s the best value to the government,” said Kathy Lueders, associate administrator for NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate.

NASA said in a news release that SpaceX’s HLS Starship, designed to land on the moon, “leans on the company’s tested Raptor engines and flight heritage of the Falcon and Dragon vehicles.”

NASA’s decision was a setback for Bezos, a lifelong space enthusiast who is now more focused on his space venture after having announced in February he would step down as Amazon CEO.

The contract was seen by Bezos and other executives as vital to Blue Origin establishing itself as a desired partner for NASA, and also putting the venture on the road to turning a profit.

Musk has outlined an ambitious agenda for SpaceX and its reusable rockets, including landing humans on Mars. But in the near term, SpaceX’s main business has been launching satellites for Musk’s Starlink internet venture, and other satellites and space cargo. SpaceX announced on Wednesday it had raised about $1.16 billion in equity financing. read more

An uncrewed SpaceX Starship prototype rocket failed to land safely on March 30 after a test launch from Boca Chica, Texas. The Starship was one in a series of prototypes for the heavy-lift rocket being developed by SpaceX to carry humans and 100 tons of cargo on future missions to the moon and Mars. A first orbital Starship flight is planned for year’s end. 


China turns on nuclear-powered ‘artificial sun’

China successfully powered up its “artificial sun” nuclear fusion reactor for the first time, state media reported Friday, marking a great advance in the country’s nuclear power research capabilities.

The HL-2M Tokamak reactor is China’s largest and most advanced nuclear fusion experimental research device, and scientists hope that the device can potentially unlock a powerful clean energy source. It uses a powerful magnetic field to fuse hot plasma and can reach temperatures of over 150 million degrees Celsius, according to the People’s Daily — approximately ten times hotter than the core of the sun.

For all latest news, follow The Daily Star’s Google News channel.

Located in southwestern Sichuan province and completed late last year, the reactor is often called an “artificial sun” on account of the enormous heat and power it produces. “The development of nuclear fusion energy is not only a way to solve China’s strategic energy needs, but also has great significance for the future sustainable development of China’s energy and national economy,” said the People’s Daily.

Chinese scientists have been working on developing smaller versions of the nuclear fusion reactor since 2006. They plan to use the device in collaboration with scientists working on the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor — the world’s largest nuclear fusion research project based in France, which is expected to be completed in 2025. Fusion is considered the Holy Grail of energy and is what powers our sun.

It merges atomic nuclei to create massive amounts of energy — the opposite of the fission process used in atomic weapons and nuclear power plants, which splits them into fragments. Unlike fission, fusion emits no greenhouse gases and carries less risk of accidents or the theft of atomic material. But achieving fusion is both extremely difficult and prohibitively expensive, with the total cost of ITER estimated at $22.5 billion


Massive Puerto Rico telescope collapses

The massive telescope at Puerto Rico’s Arecibo Observatory that had been deteriorating since August collapsed today, officials said, after 57 years of astronomical discoveries.

The radio telescope’s 900-ton instrument platform, suspended by cables 450 feet (137 meters) above a 1,000-foot-wide (305 meters) bowl-shaped reflector dish, fell on Tuesday morning, the U.S. National Science Foundation said. No injuries were reported, it added.

For all latest news, follow The Daily Star’s Google News channel.

The telescope, one of the largest in the world, had been used by scientists around the world for decades to study distant planets, find potentially hazardous asteroids and hunt for potential signatures of extraterrestrial life.

Two cables supporting the reflector dish had broken since August, causing damage and forcing officials to close the observatory. The NSF, which helped manage the telescope, said in November that efforts to repair the structure would be too dangerous and therefore it would have to be demolished.

“NSF is saddened by this development,” the independent federal agency wrote on Twitter. “As we move forward, we will be looking for ways to assist the scientific community and maintain our strong relationship with the people of Puerto Rico.”


Climate change devastated dinosaurs not once, but twice

Most people know that land-dwelling dinosaurs were wiped out some 66 million years ago when an asteroid roughly twice the diameter of Paris crashed into Earth. If the explosive fireball didn’t get them, the plunge in global temperature on a planet with little or no ice — caused by a blanket of heat-shielding debris in the atmosphere — did.

What most people don’t know is that more than 100 million years earlier, another climate change cataclysm devastated a different set of dinosaur species, with many going extinct. Except for this time, it was global warming rather than global cooling that did them in, with the planet heating up more quickly than the dinos’ capacity to adapt.

For all latest news, follow The Daily Star’s Google News channel.

Scientists have found evidence of this traumatic event some 179 million years ago in plant fossils in Argentine Patagonia. They also discovered a previously unknown dinosaur. The species, called Bagualia alba, is in the family of massive, long-necked sauropods, the largest animals to walk the Earth. Before the global warming event, sauropods were only one branch of the Sauropodomorpha lineage.

Other dinosaurs in the same group were smaller and lightly built, with some no bigger than a goat, according to a study published Wednesday in the Royal Society. But a series of volcanic eruptions over several million years released huge amounts of CO2 and methane in the atmosphere, warming the planet and transforming the vegetation dinosaurs fed on. The climate went from a temperate, warm and humid with diverse lush vegetation to a strongly seasonal, hot-and-dry regime.

Smaller Sauropodomorpha dinosaurs were unable to cope with the change, but larger sauropods — like the Bagualia alba — thrived. “Sauropods are massive, four-legged animals with long necks,” which meant they could reach the tops of trees, palaeontologist and lead author Diego Pol told AFP. “Their very robust mandibles and spoon-shaped teeth were adapted to feed on all kinds of plants such as conifer trees. “Conifers in the early Jurassic had tough and leathery leaves that would be a challenge for any herbivore. But that gave B. alba an advantage over other Sauropodomorpha dinosaurs, said Pol, head of the science department at the Egidio Feruglio palaeontology museum in Patagonia.

Sauropods’ new diet saw them expanded in size from 10 metres to 40 metres in length, as large digestion chambers were needed to cope. They became the dominant group of herbivores and eventually the largest animals to ever walk the Earth.


Arecibo telescope, star of the astronomy world, to be decommissioned

The renowned Arecibo telescope in Puerto Rico will be dismantled after 57 years of service due to the rupture of cables that have led to the threat of collapse, the US National Science Foundation announced Thursday. Two cables supporting the 900-ton instruments for the telescope above a radio dish 1,000 feet (305 meters) in diameter broke on August 10 and November 6.

Engineers are concerned other cables could also break at any time, making any attempt at repair excessively dangerous. The telescope is one of the largest in the world and has been a tool for many astronomical discoveries.

For all latest news, follow The Daily Star’s Google News channel.

The foundation “prioritizes the safety of workers, Arecibo Observatory’s staff and visitors, which makes this decision necessary, although unfortunate,” said NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan.

For nearly six decades, the Arecibo Observatory has served as a beacon for breakthrough science and what a partnership with a community can look like. Using the hashtag  “WhatAreciboMeansToMe”, messages of sadness at the news spread on Twitter from both professional and amateur astronomers who have used the telescope for their work in observing the cosmos for decades. “More than a telescope, Arecibo is the reason I am even in astronomy,” local astronomer Kevin Ortiz Ceballos wrote on Twitter.

Karen Masters, an astrophysics professor at Haverford College in Pennsylvania, posted a photo of herself and her baby daughter near the radio dish in 2008 and said she was  “heartbroken and disappointed.”

An action scene from the James Bond film  “GoldenEye” takes place above the telescope, and in the film “Contact” an astronomer played by Jodie Foster uses the observatory in her quest for alien signals. The engineering company that examined the structure concluded that the remaining cables were possibly weaker than expected and recommended controlled demolition, which the foundation accepted.


SpaceX launches four astronauts to ISS on Sunday

Four astronauts were poised to launch on the SpaceX Crew Dragon “Resilience” to the International Space Station on Sunday, the first of what the US hopes will be many routine missions following a successful test flight in late spring. Three Americans — Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover and Shannon Walker — and Japan’s Soichi Noguchi will blast off at 7:27 pm Sunday (0027 GMT Monday) from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

In May, SpaceX completed a demonstration mission showing it could take astronauts to the ISS and bring them back safely, thus ending almost a decade of reliance on Russia for rides on its Soyuz rockets. “The history being made this time is we’re launching what we call an operational flight to the International Space Station,” NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine told reporters Friday. The launch will be attended by Vice President Mike Pence and second lady Karen Pence.

For all latest news, follow The Daily Star’s Google News channel.

The crew will dock at their destination at around 11:00 pm Monday night (0400 GMT Tuesday), joining two Russians and one American on board the station, and stay for six months. The Crew Dragon earlier this week became the first spacecraft to be certified by NASA since the Space Shuttle nearly 40 years ago. It is a capsule, similar in shape to the spacecraft which preceded Space Shuttle, and its launch vehicle is a reusable SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. At the end of its missions, the Crew Dragon deploys parachutes then splashes down in the water, just as in the Apollo era.

NASA turned to SpaceX and Boeing after shuttering the checkered Space Shuttle program in 2011, which failed in its main objectives of making space travel affordable and safe. The agency will have spent more than $8 billion on the Commercial Crew program by 2024, with the hope that the private sector can take care of NASA’s needs in  “low Earth orbit” so it is freed up to focus on return missions to the Moon and then on to Mars.

SpaceX, founded by Elon Musk in 2002, has leapfrogged its much older rival Boeing, whose program has floundered after a failed test of its uncrewed Starliner last year. But SpaceX’s success won’t mean the US will stop hitching rides with Russia altogether, said Bridenstine. “We want to have an exchange of seats where American astronauts can fly on Russian Soyuz rockets and Russian cosmonauts can fly on commercial crew vehicles,” he said, explaining it was necessary in case either program was down for a period of time.

The reality, however, is that space ties between the US and Russia, one of the few bright spots in their bilateral relations, have frayed in recent years, and much remains uncertain. Russia has said it won’t be a partner in the Artemis program to return to the Moon in 2024, claiming the NASA-led mission is too US-centric. Dmitry Rogozin, the head of Russia’s space agency has also repeatedly mocked SpaceX’s technology, and this summer announced Roscosmos would build rockets that surpass Musk’s. He told a state news agency he was unimpressed with the Crew Dragon’s water landing, calling it  “rather rough” and saying his agency was developing a methane rocket that will be reusable 100 times. But the fact that a national space agency feels moved to compare itself to a company is arguably a validation of NASA’s public-private strategy.

SpaceX’s emergence has also deprived the Roscosmos of a valuable income stream. The cost of round-trips on Russian rockets had been rising and stood at around $85 million per astronaut, according to estimates last year.

Presidential transition

Presidential transitions are always a difficult time for NASA, and the ascension of Joe Biden in January is expected to be no different. The agency has yet to receive from Congress the tens of billions of dollars needed to finalize the Artemis program. Bridenstine has announced that he will step down, in order to let the new president set his own goals for space exploration.

So far, Biden has not commented on the 2024 timeline. Democratic party documents say they support NASA’s Moon and Mars aspirations, but also emphasize elevating the agency’s Earth sciences division to better understand how climate change is affecting our planet. 


JU’s Prof Dr AA Mamun among world’s top 2 percent most-cited scientists

Dr AA Mamun, a renowned professor of Physics department at Jahangirnagar University, has been selected among the top two percent of the most cited scientists in the world in a journal published by Stanford University based researchers in the US.

Stanford University professor John Ioannidis — a specialist in metascience, or the study of science using scientific methods — worked alongside US-based Kevin W Boyack and the Netherlands-based Jeroen Baas to release the exhaustive list of 1,59,683 scientists in various disciplines.

For all latest news, follow The Daily Star’s Google News channel.

Each scientist was assigned a weight based on the number of citations of their own research work.

Dr Mamun is among the foremost scientists in the country, with a total 417 publications in prominent research journals across the globe, and has over 12,000 citations, according to a JU press release.

His research interests include the fields of plasma physics, quantum physics, and medical physics.

For his contribution in physics, Dr Mamun was selected as a fellow of the Bangladesh Academy of Sciences in 2019.

He won the Fredric William Basel Research Award from Alexander Von Humboldt Foundation in Germany for his outstanding contribution to physics in 2009, becoming the first scientist to win the prestigious research award.

Dr Mamun earned his PhD from St Andrew’s University in the UK with a Commonwealth Scholarship, and was a post-doctoral fellow at the Humboldt University in Germany.

JU Vice-Chancellor Dr Farzana Islam has congratulated Dr Mamun for his remarkable achievement and wished him success in his future endeavours.


DNA might soon replace barcodes, study suggests

Easy-to-remove barcodes and QR codes used to tag everything from T-shirts to car engines may soon be replaced by a tagging system based on DNA and invisible to the naked eye, scientists said Thursday. The DNA-based system could help anti-forgery efforts, according to researchers who said thieves struggle to find or tamper with a transparent splash of DNA on valuable or vulnerable items, such as election ballots, works of art, or secret documents.

In an article published in Nature Communications, researchers at the University of Washington and Microsoft said that the molecular tagging system, called Porcupine, is — unlike most alternatives — cost-effective. “Using DNA for tagging objects has been out of reach in the past because it is expensive and time-consuming to write and read, and requires expensive lab equipment,” lead author and a Washington University doctoral student Katie Doroschak told AFP.

For all latest news, follow The Daily Star’s Google News channel.

Porcupine gets around this by prefabricating fragments of DNA that users can mix together arbitrarily to create new tags, the researchers said. “Instead of radio waves or printed lines, the Porcupine tagging scheme relies on a set of distinct DNA strands called molecular bits, or ‘molbits’ for short,” the University of Washington said in a statement.  “To encode an ID, we pair each digital bit with a molbit,” explained Doroschak. “If the digital bit is 1, we add its molbit to the tag, and if it’s 0 we leave it out. Then we can dry it until it’s ready to be decoded later,” said Doroschak.

Once the item has been tagged, it can then be shipped or stored. When someone wants to read the tag, water is added to rehydrate the molecular tag, which is read by a nanopore sequencer — a DNA-reading device smaller than an IPhone.

Undetectable by sight

“The name Porcupine comes from a play on words (PORE-cupine, as in nanopore) and the idea that porcupines can ‘tag’ objects, and critters that dare to get too close,” the lead author said. Unlike existing systems to tag objects, DNA tags are undetectable by sight or touch, senior author Jeff Nivala said in a press release from Washington University. 

“Practically speaking, this means they are difficult to tamper with. “You could envision molecular tagging being used to track voters’ ballots and prevent tampering in future elections,” said Nivala. The DNA-based technology might also be able to tag items that would be difficult to fix a barcode to. 

“It is not possible to tag cotton or other fibres with conventional methods like RFID tags and QR codes, but a liquid DNA-based tag could be used as a mist,” said Doroschak.  “This could be helpful for supply chains where origin tracing is important to retain the value of the product,” she added.


Make Science Great Again: US researchers dream of life after Trump

From his lab in Toulouse, France, Benjamin Sanderson models the range of extreme risks to humans from climate change, research he hopes can inform policymakers planning for worsening wildfires and floods. It is the kind of work he once performed in the United States – and hopes to again soon.

Sanderson is among dozens of US-based climate scientists who shifted their research to France, or sought refuge in academia or in left-leaning states like California after Republican Donald Trump was elected in 2016. They worried his administration’s distrust of science would impact their ability to finance and advance their work.

For all latest news, follow The Daily Star’s Google News channel.

Now, with the presidential election looming – and Democrat Joe Biden ahead in the polls and promising to prioritise the role of science in policymaking – some of these researchers hope for a return to the days when the United States was viewed as the best place on earth to do their jobs.

Climate science in Europe is not treated as a “political topic,” Sanderson said, adding that he would consider returning to the United States under an administration that valued scientific input.

In the United States, the role of scientific research in public policy is clearly on the ballot in the November 3 presidential election.

Some Republicans have sought to undermine the research showing human-caused climate change since long before Trump was elected in 2016, but the sidelining of science-based recommendations in policy decisions has only accelerated since.

Against the advice of researchers, Trump announced plans in 2017 to withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement, an international accord to fight global warming. He argued the pact would devastate the economy without providing much environmental benefit. His administration has since rolled back more than 100 environmental protections it deemed burdensome to industry, including those seeking to limit greenhouse gas emissions. Trump has also appointed industry insiders or climate change doubters to key roles overseeing environmental regulation and cut scientific advisory committees at federal agencies.

The politicisation of science has come into sharper focus this year amid the coronavirus pandemic, as Trump has ridiculed and ignored many research findings and recommendations from the administration’s top infectious disease expert, Anthony Fauci, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The administration has made a habit of “ignoring, sidelining and censoring” scientific researchers, according to an August statement by the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit that advocates for scientific approaches to social and environmental problems.

White House Office of Science and Technology Policy spokeswoman Jordan Hunter did not comment on the departure of scientists under Trump or on the administration’s handling of research on climate change and the pandemic. She said the administration was “committed to ensuring the next great scientific breakthroughs happen in America,” such as artificial intelligence and space exploration.

Biden, by contrast, has promised to fight climate change and to use scientific research and advice to tackle the pandemic. His transition team is already seeking input from informal advisors on how to rebuild and expand US research, the Biden campaign said.

“Science will be at the heart of a possible Biden-Harris administration,” said transition spokesperson Cameron French.

The candidates’ contrasting takes on the value of science may be best summed up by Trump himself, who said at an October 18 rally in Carson City, Nevada: “If you vote for Biden, he’ll listen to the scientists. If I listened to scientists, we’d have a country in a massive depression instead of – we’re like a rocket ship.”

Biden replied the next day over Twitter: “For once, Donald Trump is correct: I will listen to scientists.”


In December 2017, French President Emmanuel Macron offered alarmed US climate scientists multi-year grants to relocate and conduct climate research in France under his “Make Our Planet Great Again” programme – a jab at Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan.

The program came in response to Trump’s decision to begin withdrawing the United States from the Paris climate agreement. At least 32 scientists from across the globe took Macron’s offer, according to the French government. About 18 of them had been working at US-based institutions before they moved some or all of their research to France.

Sanderson had previously worked on projections for extreme weather related to climate change at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado. He moved to the French city of Toulouse, he said, to escape the politics that has engulfed US climate science. He works primarily in the hope of informing policy, an endeavor that “was no longer relevant under the Trump administration,” he said.

Another scientist who went to France is Philip Schulz, a former post-doctoral researcher at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado. Now he studies organic electronics and solar energy in Paris under the French program.

He cited the Trump administration’s climate skepticism as driving his change of job and country. “I work in a field that is trying to combat climate change and enable an energy transition,” Schulz said.


While some US scientists took up Macron’s call to work in France, others fled jobs with the federal government for positions in academia or for left-leaning state governments such as California, which tried to recruit disgruntled researchers.

“I feel they’re like Russian dissidents during the USSR,” said Jared Blumenfeld, California’s Secretary for Environmental Protection, who ran the federal EPA’s Pacific Southwest region from 2010 to 2016. “They’ve been in exile in California.”

Blumenfeld said it will take decades to rebuild science from an onslaught of politics and superstition he believes began under the administration of Republican George W Bush. He said California will not begrudge researchers who return to federal government jobs if Trump loses the election.

“If they want to go back and continue to work and build up these battered institutions, Godspeed,” he said. “We’ve been here to take them in from the storm.”

Other US government scientists and experts have found refuge in academia.

Joel Clement, a former director of the office of policy analysis at the US Interior Department, left government in 2017 after being transferred from a position focused on climate change in the Arctic to the department’s office of revenue. He now does research and teaches at the John F Kennedy School of Public Policy at Harvard University.

“Any administration is going to have a long road to get this back on track,” said Clement, who has been involved in conversations about restoring US science with other experts informally advising the Biden team.

Dr Ruth Etzel, EPA’s former head of children’s health, is still working at the agency, though she says she has been sidelined from her specialty under Trump.

A pediatrician with a focus on epidemiology and preventative medicine, Etzel was placed on administrative leave in 2018 after advocating more aggressive measures to prevent lead poisoning. She now works as a senior advisor in the office of water.

“I don’t have meaningful responsibility in office of water,” Etzel said. She said she hopes a new administration would let her share her expertise.

The EPA declined to comment.

The Biden campaign hopes scientists who left come back to work for the federal government.

A campaign working group has been tossing around ideas for restoring scientific integrity on Zoom calls, including possibly creating a White House office focused on climate change, setting up nonpartisan oversight of federal scientific agencies, re-appointing scientific advisory panels and recruiting young scientists to federal jobs, according to advisers who were not authorized to speak publicly.

Such changes would be very welcome, said climate scientist Venkatramani Balaji, who is working as a laureate in the French “Make Our Planet Great Again” programme, but kept his affiliation with Princeton University in the United States.

“At some point, science is going to be invited back to the table,” Balaji said. “As a community, we need to be ready for when that happens.”


On the moon, water water everywhere and not a drop to drink (yet)

The moon lacks the bodies of liquid water that are a hallmark of Earth but scientists said on Monday lunar water is more widespread than previously known, with water molecules trapped within mineral grains on the surface and more water perhaps hidden in ice patches residing in permanent shadows.

While research 11 years ago indicated water was relatively widespread in small amounts on the moon, a team of scientists is now reporting the first unambiguous detection of water molecules on the lunar surface. At the same time, another team is reporting that the moon possesses roughly 15,000 square miles (40,000 square kilometers) of permanent shadows that potentially could harbor hidden pockets of water in the form of ice.

For all latest news, follow The Daily Star’s Google News channel.

Water is a precious resource and a relatively plentiful lunar presence could prove important to future astronaut and robotic missions seeking to extract and utilize water for purposes such as a drinking supply or a fuel ingredient.

A team led by Casey Honniball of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland detected molecular water on the lunar surface, trapped within natural glasses or between debris grains. Previous observations have suffered from ambiguity between water and its molecular cousin hydroxyl, but the new detection used a method that yielded unambiguous findings.

The only way for this water to survive on the sunlit lunar surfaces where it was observed was to be embedded within mineral grains, protecting it from the frigid and foreboding environment. The researchers used data from the SOFIA airborne observatory, a Boeing 747SP aircraft modified to carry a telescope.

“A lot of people think that the detection I’ve made is water ice, which is not true. It’s just the water molecules – because they’re so spread out they don’t interact with each other to form water ice or even liquid water,” Honniball said.

The second study, also published in the journal Nature Astronomy, focused upon so-called cold traps on the moon, regions of its surface that exist in a state of perpetual darkness where temperatures are below about negative 260 degrees Fahrenheit (negative 163 degrees Celsius). That is cold enough that frozen water can remain stable for billions of years.

Using data from NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft, researchers led by planetary scientist Paul Hayne of the University of Colorado, Boulder detected what may be tens of billions of small shadows, many no bigger than a small coin. Most are located in the polar regions.

“Our research shows that a multitude of previously unknown regions of the moon could harbor water ice,” Hayne said. “Our results suggest that water could be much more widespread in the moon’s polar regions than previously thought, making it easier to access, extract and analyze.”

NASA is planning a return of astronauts to the moon, a mission envisioned as paving the way for a later journey carrying a crew to Mars. Accessible sources where water can be harvested on the moon would beneficial to those endeavors.

“Water is not just constrained to the polar region. It’s more spread out than we thought it was,” Honniball said.