• The discovery comes from SOFIA, the world’s largest airborne observatory
  • SOFIA is an 80-20 joint venture between NASA and German Aerospace Center
  • SOFIA flies at an altitude of between 39,000 to 45,000 feet

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA, said it will make an “exciting new discovery” about the Moon on Monday at noon.

The discovery comes from the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, or SOFIA, the world’s largest airborne observatory.

The space agency noted the new discovery will contribute to NASA’s “efforts to learn about the Moon in support of deep space exploration.” Under the “Artemis” program, NASA will send the first woman and next man to the lunar surface in 2024 and ultimately send humans to explore Mars in the early 2030s.

Dr. Adrienne Dove, an assistant professor of physics at the University of Central Florida, told International Business Times that, while she has no insider information on what NASA will announce, she guesses that based on who will be at the press conference on Monday that it may have something to do with a detection of water on the Moon.

“One of the speakers listed for the presser has previously published a paper about [infrared] water detection using the [infrared telescope facility] in Hawaii,” she noted.

SOFIA, an 80-20 joint venture between NASA and German Aerospace Center, is essentially a modified 747 aircraft with a 9-foot telescope that observes objects in the solar system. SOFIA flies at an altitude of between 39,000 to 45,000 feet. At that height, SOFIA examines celestial objects in infrared light which cannot be seen from the earth’s surface. noted that SOFIA has previously detected the existence of oxygen in the Martian atmosphere as well as the first sighting of a formation of a molecule in space.

Meghan Bartels of noted that since SOFIA flies like an airplane – albeit at extremely high altitudes – “it's easy to take observations of a specific patch of sky during each of the observatory's 10-hour flights.”

SOFIA was grounded in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic and restarted only in mid-August. SOFIA is also not entirely popular in Washington – over the past ten years, the budget of the president called for the observatory’s cessation, but Congress always reinstated its funding.

However, as with the International Space Station, some have questioned SOFIA’s scientific value – given its annual $80 million-plus price tag. reported that in its first five years of operations (from 2014 to 2018) the observatory produced an average of only 21 scientific papers per year –a low figure for advanced telescopes.

“SOFIA has not lived up to its potential,” said Paul Hertz, head of NASA’s astrophysics division in Washington.

In February, President Donald Trump’s administration proposed shutting down SOFIA.

"The science productivity for this telescope falls short of that expected for a large mission with annual operating costs exceeding $80 million," NASA itself wrote. "SOFIA's annual operations budget of more than $80 million is the second most expensive in the [NASA] Astrophysics program [behind the Hubble Space Telescope], yet the mission has not delivered high quality data products or science on par with other large science missions."

Dr. Dove in Florida said she thinks SOFIA is a “valuable resource and can enable some really unique observations.”

“There’s a lot of interest in where water might be on the lunar surface, in what concentrations, and in what types, so if this [new discovery] provides an additional set of data… it will be interesting,” she added.