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April 7, 2023

The Earth has a lot of water, but that’s not the only place Astrogeology is going in search of this precious resource! Whether it’s finding water on a far-away planet, investigating ways that water can be used as a potential resource for space travel, or sharing about where water can be found in the solar system, Astrogeology scientists are heavily invested in the study of this valuable resource.

Water found on Mars!

It’s a bit of a running joke in the planetary science community that every few months water is discovered on Mars or the Moon. A new paper gets released, further supporting the discovery that water ice is likely to be found on our largest natural satellite or on the Red Planet. Since these discoveries are usually framed as “water discovered on Mars” or the Moon, it seems it gets rediscovered every so often. But water ice on the Moon and Mars is no secret, and USGS Astrogeology scientists have been working on a variety of techniques and datasets to quantify and constrain the abundance, location, and accessibility of water on the Moon and Mars.

Image from the Icy Mystery comic: Icy Mystery | U.S. Geological Survey (
Image from the Icy Mystery comic: Icy Mystery | U.S. Geological Survey (

Recently, Astrogeology Research Geologist Colin Dundas and co-authors were involved with a study that found water using the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and a recent impact on Mars. This find was unique in that the impact was investigated using the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter but was also detected by seismometers on the Mars InSight Lander. High-resolution cameras and spectrometers were able to capture the newly formed crater and its excavation into the Martian crust, having just exposed the ice and dust below. Find out more about the impact and science at the link above, including an amazing comic by Steve Sobieszczyk, Colin Dundas, and Ryan Anderson!

Did you know you can turn lunar regolith into rocket fuel?

Specifically, the water ice, oxygen, and hydrogen that may exist in various forms on the Moon can be turned into rocket propellant, like liquid oxygen. This is one of the reasons studying water ice on the Moon is an important research activity, and one that we’re actively pursuing. USGS Astrogeology scientists are working on a variety of projects to understand where the water ice is, how much is there, and whether it can be recovered in a way that would be useful for exploration. This is part of a field called in situ resource utilization (in situ is Latin that means “in its original place), dedicated to using local resources to generate the products needed for sustained exploration of the Moon, Mars, and beyond. A current example is the conversion of solar energy into electrical power by many spacecraft. One goal for the near future is to reduce the cost of space exploration and space travel by processing lunar rocks and soils into things used for infrastructure like landing pads and habitats.

USGS Planetary Volcanologist Laszlo Kestay works in the field of in situ resource utilization and says “In terms of water on the Moon, oxygen is relatively easy to obtain – about half the atoms in most rocks are oxygen! It is hydrogen that is difficult to find.” The work continues, however: “We have been able to obtain a low-resolution map of hydrogen from orbit and find that it is concentrated in some craters near the poles. These craters are very cold because the sun never shines in them, allowing ice to survive for billions of years. But we need new missions that drill into the ice to understand its origin and how to manage this rare and non-renewable resource in a responsible manner. The upcoming NASA PRIME-1 and VIPER missions will do just that.” 

Teaching future generations about water in the solar system

USGS Astrogeology scientists share the knowledge that they gain about water in the solar system with learners of all ages! In collaboration with educational experts from across the U.S., USGS Astrogeology scientists on the PLANETS project have helped create a curriculum guide for Out of School Time sessions that teaches about how water is distributed in the solar system and how important of a resource water is.

USGS Research Scientist Greg Vaughan recounts some important lessons from the water in the solar system unit: One of the key takeaways from the water in the solar system lesson is that water is actually pretty common throughout the solar system, you find at least a little bit almost anywhere you look – even mostly dry places like the Moon and Mercury.  Another takeaway is that most water in the solar system is frozen into ice, and most of it is in the outer part of the solar system – in Saturn’s neighborhood, and in Jupiter’s neighborhood.  We think of Earth as the water planet because its surface is about 71% covered in water – liquid water.  But there are numerous small moons in the outer solar system that have a lot more water than Earth. 

USGS Astrogeology Research Scientist Greg Vaughan pointing out water on different solar system bodies.
USGS Astrogeology Research Scientist Greg Vaughan pointing out water on different solar system bodies. The size of the water circles next to each body represents how much water each planetary body would have if you removed it and put it all in a single ball of water. Dr. Vaughan is pointing out how outer solar system bodies like Callisto  and Ganymede have so much more water by volume than inner solar system bodies like Earth or Mars. Photo Credit: USGS (public domain).

Greg notes some of these moons are made mostly of water ice; Saturn’s famous rings are also made mostly of water ice.  While most of the water out there is frozen, there is also evidence for liquid water out there too, on small moons like Europa and Enceladus.  And these places are important targets for exploration for two reasons: As far as we can tell, water is a key ingredient for life.  So, in the search for life out there, places where there is liquid water are smart places to look.  Also, if we ever send humans to explore the outer solar system, water will be a key ingredient to sustain human life out there.  It’s a lot more efficient to find it out there than to have to bring it with us. 

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