NASA’s Ladee Probe Finds Neon In Moon’s Atmosphere

NASA’s Ladee probe has confirmed the existence of neon in the moon’s atmosphere, decades after astronomers first speculated about its existence above the lunar surface.

The Ladee mission crashed into the moon’s surface in 2014, as Engadget notes, but not before relaying data which NASA has now used to answer long-standing questions regarding the lunar atmosphere. The probe has revealed that neon, the gas used to light up signs in Vegas and across the world, exists in abundance in the lunar atmosphere, though scientists are quick to point out that it has nothing to do with the moon’s natural glow.

According to Mehdi Benna of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, the existence of neon in the moon’s atmosphere has long been theorized by astronomers.

“The presence of neon in the exosphere of the Moon has been a subject of speculation since the Apollo missions, but no credible detections were made. We were very pleased to not only finally confirm its presence, but to show that it is relatively abundant.”

As Astronomy notes, the moon’s atmosphere is actually 100 trillion times less dense than the Earth’s, which is why it is commonly called an exosphere. It is primarily generated by the solar wind, which contains a multitude of elements, but is composed mostly of hydrogen and helium expelled from the sun. When these elements strike the lunar surface, the more volatile ones, including helium, neon, and argon, are ejected into space. Though neon is abundant above the lunar surface, Ladee’s Neutral Mass Spectrometer (NMS) instrument has detected the presence of all three.

Over the course of seven months, Ladee’s NMS systematically measured the presence of these gases, determining that their relative abundance changes during the day. Argon peaks around sunrise, while the highest concentration of neon can be detected around 4 a.m. Helium, meanwhile, peaks around 1 a.m. Ladee’s NMS also detected the presence of argon-40, helping NASA to determine that it likely originated from the decay of radioactive potassium-40 on the lunar surface.

While the probe’s data has successfully helped to answer questions that have puzzled astronomers for four decades, Benna noted that the discoveries highlight the limits of current exospheric models. NASA continues to study the moon from literally all angles, as the Inquisitr previously reported, yet due to the number of exospheres found in the solar system, researchers are deeply interested in further examining the moon’s atmosphere.

[Photo by NASA Ames/ Dana Berry via Engadget]

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