The moon’s atmosphere as we know it today is hardly existent. But a new study suggests that it once had a proper, albeit temporary, atmosphere several billions of years ago, as the moon might have had volcanic eruptions spewing gas above its surface.
As explained by NASA in a 2013 article, the moon has an atmosphere consisting of a rather peculiar mix of gases, such as sodium and potassium. The lunar atmosphere has only a million molecules, and while that may sound like a lot, the space agency explained that this represents an “infinitesimal,” or extremely small amount of air compared to what we breathe here on Earth. Experts often refer to this atmosphere as an “exosphere,” as the aforementioned molecules are too few in number to behave like gases normally do.
According to Space.com, that wasn’t always the case for our moon, and this was proven by a team of scientists from NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center and the Lunar and Planetary Institute (LPI). The researchers believe that the moon’s atmosphere was created by its ancient volcanoes some 3 billion to 4 billion years ago, with the temporary atmosphere lasting for about 70 million years before it ultimately vanished.
In a statement published by the LPI, the researchers explained that the moon still has visible surfaces made out of volcanic basalt which could be traced back to volcanic eruptions from its early history. In the 1970s, Apollo astronauts gathered samples from the magma underneath the moon’s surface and concluded that they had chemical features such as carbon dioxide, hydrogen, oxygen, sulfur, and other volatile gases.
For the purposes of the new study, the researchers calculated the amounts of gases that were included in the erupting lava and used this data to determine how thick the moon’s atmosphere was at its peak. Based on the new findings, the lunar atmosphere was thickest when volcanic activity peaked about 3.5 billion years ago. At that point, the atmosphere was growing faster than it could dissipate into space.
The scientists believe that their research could have very important implications for space agencies planning to launch moon missions. This is because the findings “quantify a source of volatile (gases)” that could have possibly been trapped from the moon’s atmosphere into cold areas near the lunar poles. According to the LPI’s press release, this could mean that the moon has a workable source of ice for future sustained lunar exploration endeavors. The presence of volatiles trapped in icy deposits might also be able to provide air and fuel to astronauts exploring the lunar surface, and hint at the possibility of missions “beyond the moon.”
[Featured Image by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images]