Our Moon may once have had an atmosphere

Lunar lava flows may have produced an atmosphere around the Moon some four billion years ago.

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Artist's impression of the Moon, looking over Imbrium Basin, with lavas erupting, venting gases, and producing a visible atmosphere.
Credit: NASA MSFC
 

 

An atmosphere was produced around the Moon three to four billion years ago as a result of volcanic eruptions that produce gases faster than they could escape into space.

This is the key finding of a study that looked at the dark volcanic basalt seen in the impact basins on the Moon’s surface.

These areas are known as maria, or seas, and were created by flows of magma generated while the Moon was still hot.

Samples of the lunar surface returned to Earth by the Apollo missions show the magmas contained gas components like carbon monoxide and the ingredients for water and sulphur.

 


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The study has calculated the amount of gases that were produced by the erupting lavas as they flowed over the Moon’s surface. 

These gases, the study says, formed a transient atmosphere around the Moon. It is thought that the atmosphere was thickest about 3.5 billion years ago, when volcanic activity on the Moon was at its peak.

It probably lasted about 70 million years before being lost to space.

 

A map showing the basaltic lavas that emitted gases on the side of the Moon facing Earth.
Credit: Debra Needham

 

The study was carried out by Dr. Debra H. Needham of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center and Dr. David A. Kring at the Lunar and Planetary Institute (LPI).

“The total amount of H2O released during the emplacement of the mare basalts is nearly twice the volume of water in Lake Tahoe,” says Needham.

“Although much of this vapour would have been lost to space, a significant fraction may have made its way to the lunar poles. This means some of the lunar polar volatiles we see at the lunar poles may have originated inside the Moon.”

The study predicts that the two largest outputs of gas were produced when lava seas filled the Serenitatis and Imbrium basins about 3.8 and 3.5 billion years ago, respectively.

The news could be particularly important for future missions to return humans to the Moon, and potentially even build a base from which to launch spacecraft.

The study shows where volatiles may have become trapped in cold, shadowed regions near the lunar poles. These could provide a source of air and fuel for operations on the Moon, or for exploratory missions farther into space.

 


 

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