April 29, 2010, 8:36 PM — The discovery of water ice on the surface of an asteroid has NASA scientists conjecturing that asteroids and comets could have delivered enough water to a primordial Earth to fill its oceans.
A study of data compiled during six years of observing the asteroid 24 Themis through a NASA-funded telescope found evidence of water ice and carbon-based organic materials. The asteroid orbits the sun at a distance of 297 million miles, or between the planets of Jupiter and Mars.
The telescope, housed at NASA's Infrared Telescope Facility on the summit of Mauna Kea in Hawaii, has constantly focused on 24 Themis asteroid.
"For a long time the thinking was that you couldn't find a cup's worth of water in the entire asteroid belt," said Don Yeomans, manager of NASA's Near-Earth Object Program Office, in a statement yesterday. "Today we know you not only could quench your thirst, but you just might be able to fill up every pool on Earth -- and then some."
According to NASA, this new research could help rewrite the book not just on the nature of asteroids but on how the solar system was formed as well.
"This is exciting because it provides us a better understanding about our past -- and our possible future," said Yeomans. "This research indicates that not only could asteroids be possible sources of raw materials, but they could be the fueling stations and watering holes for future interplanetary exploration."
NASA scientists have been searching for water ice outside of Earth's boundaries for quite some time. Since water is one of the key elements of life as we know it, NASA has been eager to find it on other planets, moons and asteroids.
Nearly two years ago, one of NASA's robotic landers discovered water ice on the north pole of Mars. Soon after that, NASA reported that the water ice and minerals found on the Martian surface could make it easier for humans to live on the planet in the not-so-distant future.
NASA noted that the ice on the northern pole of Mars has been a particularly important find for scientists because robots and astronauts could extract usable -- even drinkable -- water from it, helping to sustain an extended stay on the Red Planet.
And just last month, NASA announced that one of the radar systems onboard India's lunar orbiter spotted evidence of significant amounts of water on the moon's north pole.