Scientists at the Southwest Research Institute have discovered, for the first time, water molecules on the surface of an asteroid. This finding, based on data from the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), a joint project of NASA and the German Space Agency DLR, could shed light on the origin of water on Earth and the distribution of life in our solar system and beyond.

Asteroids are remnants of the planetary formation process that formed billions of years ago. Their composition varies depending on where in the solar nebula they formed. Dry, silicate-rich asteroids formed close to the Sun, while icy materials coalesced farther away.

Understanding the location and composition of the asteroids helps us to reconstruct how the materials were distributed in the solar nebula and how they have evolved since then. The distribution of water in our solar system also provides information about the possibility of life in other solar systems.

Scientists used SOFIA’s FORCAST instrument to isolate mid-infrared spectral signatures indicative of molecular water on two silicate-rich asteroids, Iris and Massalia.

We detected a feature that is unambiguously attributed to molecular water on the asteroids Iris and Massalia, said Dr. Anicia Arredondo, lead author of the study. This spectral signature is similar to what we find on the Sunlit surface of the Moon.

Scientists believe that water on asteroids is chemically bound to minerals, adsorbed on silicate or trapped in silicate impact glass. The abundance of water on asteroids is similar to that on the Sunlit Moon.

This discovery suggests that water may be more widespread in our solar system than previously thought. Water is essential for life on Earth, so its presence on asteroids could indicate where to look for possible life forms, both in our solar system and elsewhere.

Scientists are using NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope to investigate more targets and expand our understanding of the distribution of water in the solar system. These studies will help shed light on the origin of water on Earth and the potential for life on other worlds.


Southwest Research Institute | Anicia Arredondo, Margaret M. McAdam, et al., Detection of Molecular H2O on Nominally Anhydrous Asteroids. The Planetary Science Journal, Vol.5, No.2, DOI 10.3847/PSJ/ad18b8

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