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Water molecules discovered on the Moon, NASA confirms

NASA has officially found water on the Moon, and it could have major impacts for future space travel.

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Nicholas Rattenbury explained the significance of the NASA discovery on TVNZ1's Breakfast. Source: Breakfast

Today researchers revealed the "unambiguous detection of molecular water" on the Moon and areas called "cold traps" which could contain frozen water.

It could mean around 4000 square kilometres of the Moon's surface could have the capacity to trap water.

It's a major research discovery, according to Dr Heloise Stevance, a research fellow in astrophysics at the University of Auckland.

"Water is a precious resource in space, not just for human life - if we want to create outposts in the future - but for rocket fuel," she told 1 NEWS.

If a reliable source of water can be found on the Moon, it means rocket ships leaving Earth don't need to carry as much with them.

"One of the most expensive [in terms of energy] stages of space travel is escaping earth's gravity," Stevance says.

"Transporting anything out of the planet is costly, and if you want to travel far you want to use a lot of fuel and that's a lot of weight to carry out of orbit.

"But, what if you could just make your fuel in space?"

Unlike the discovery of water on Mars, which is seen as a sign of potential life, Stevance says this research is exciting for a different reason.

"The moon is in essence, just a big rock - it has never had conditions that could have sustained life," she says. 

"So when you hear science people getting excited about water on the moon, don't think 'aliens', think 'rocket fuel'. I guess in this case, we are the aliens."

Previous research had pointed to the possibility of water on the moon, particularly at the south pole.

But today's research is the first time they've been able to detect H2O - water - itself at a molecular level, NASA says.

"Our results suggest that water trapped at the lunar poles may be more widely distributed and accessible as a resource for future missions than previously thought," the researchers say in the paper.

"If water is found in micro cold traps, the sheer number and topographic accessibility of these locales would facilitate future human and robotic exploration of the Moon."

The research was done using the NASA/DLR Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), a converted Boeing 747.

Two papers were published today in Nature Astronomy - Molecular water detected on the sunlit Moon by SOFIA, led by Casey Honniball from University of Hawai'i; and Micro cold traps on the Moon, led by Paul Hayne from University of Colorado.