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Using data from the retired Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA)—a joint project of NASA and the German Space Agency at DLR—Southwest Research Institute scientists have discovered, for the first time, water molecules on the surface of an asteroid. Scientists looked at four silicate-rich asteroids using the FORCAST instrument to isolate the mid-infrared spectral signatures indicative of molecular water on two of them.
"Asteroids are leftovers from the planetary formation process, so their compositions vary depending on where they formed in the solar nebula," said SwRI's Dr. Anicia Arredondo, lead author of a paper in The Planetary Science Journal about the discovery. "Of particular interest is the distribution of water on asteroids, because that can shed light on how water was delivered to Earth."
Anhydrous, or dry, silicate asteroids form close to the sun while icy materials coalesce farther out. Understanding the location of asteroids and their compositions tells us how materials in the solar nebula were distributed and have evolved since formation. The distribution of water in our solar system will provide insight into the distribution of water in other solar systems and, because water is necessary for all life on Earth, will drive where to look for potential life, both in our solar system and beyond.