New NASA study suggests moon once had an atmosphere

October 5, 2017, Universities Space Research Association
Artistic impression of the Moon, looking over the Imbrium Basin, with lavas erupting, venting gases, and producing a visible atmosphere. Credit: NASA MSFC

A new study shows that an atmosphere was produced around the ancient Moon, 3 to 4 billion years ago, when intense volcanic eruptions spewed gases above the surface faster than they could escape to space. The study, supported by NASA's Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute, was published in Earth and Planetary Science Letters.

When one looks up at the Moon, dark surfaces of volcanic basalt can be easily seen to fill large impact basins. Those seas of basalt, known as maria, erupted while the interior of the Moon was still hot and generating magmatic plumes that sometimes breached the and flowed for hundreds of kilometers. Analyses of Apollo samples indicate those magmas carried gas components, such as carbon monoxide, the ingredients for water, sulfur, and other volatile species.

In new work, Dr. Debra H. Needham, Research Scientist of NASA Marshall Space Flight Center, and Dr. David A. Kring, Universities Space Research Association (USRA) Senior Staff Scientist, at the Lunar and Planetary Institute (LPI), calculated the amounts of gases that rose from the erupting lavas as they flowed over the surface and showed that those gases accumulated around the Moon to form a transient atmosphere. The atmosphere was thickest during the peak in volcanic activity about 3.5 billion years ago and, when created, would have persisted for about 70 million years before being lost to space.

The two largest pulses of gases were produced when lava seas filled the Serenitatis and Imbrium basins about 3.8 and 3.5 billion years ago, respectively. The margins of those lava seas were explored by astronauts of the Apollo 15 and 17 missions, who collected samples that not only provided the ages of the eruptions, but also contained evidence of the gases produced from the erupting lunar lavas.

New NASA study shows moon once had an atmosphere
Map of basaltic lavas that emitted gases on the lunar nearside. Credit: Debra Needham 

NASA's Needham says, "The total amount of H2O released during the emplacement of the mare basalts is nearly twice the volume of water in Lake Tahoe. Although much of this vapor would have been lost to space, a significant fraction may have made its way to the . This means some of the lunar polar volatiles we see at the lunar poles may have originated inside the Moon."

David Kring notes, "This work dramatically changes our view of the Moon from an airless rocky body to one that used to be surrounded by an atmosphere more prevalent than that surrounding Mars today." When the Moon had that atmosphere, it was nearly 3 times closer to Earth than it is today and would have appeared nearly 3 times larger in the sky.

This new picture of the Moon has important implications for future exploration. The analysis of Needham and Kring quantifies a source of volatiles that may have been trapped from the atmosphere into cold, permanently shadowed regions near the lunar poles and, thus, may provide a source of ice suitable for a sustained lunar exploration program. Volatiles trapped in icy deposits could provide air and fuel for astronauts conducting lunar surface operations and, potentially, for missions beyond the Moon.

Over the past decade, the search for volatiles within the Moon and on the surface of the Moon has intensified. Those volatiles may hold clues about the material that accreted to form the Earth and Moon and, thus, our planetary origins. The volatiles may also provide the in-situ resources needed for sustained lunar activities that may follow the development of NASA's new Orion crew vehicle and a Gateway structure that may orbit the Moon. In addition, robotic assets, like NASA's Resource Prospector, are being developed to explore the nature and distribution of volatile deposits that might be suitable for scientific analysis and recovery. Based on the new results of Needham and Kring, those assets may be recovering ice that is partially composed of volatiles erupted from volcanic fissures over 3 billion years ago.

Explore further: Asteroids most likely delivered water to the moon – here's how we cracked it

More information: Debra H. Needham et al. Lunar volcanism produced a transient atmosphere around the ancient Moon, Earth and Planetary Science Letters (2017). DOI: 10.1016/j.epsl.2017.09.002

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Mark Thomas
5 / 5 (3) Oct 05, 2017
The most obvious question to me is: How much of an atmosphere was there?

"the maximum atmospheric pressure at the lunar surface could have reached ∼1 kPa, or ∼1.5 times higher than Mars' current atmospheric surface pressure"


That estimate in combination with the following statement strongly suggests a deposited atmosphere, even on a body with only 1/6 of Earth gravity, can last a tremendously long time from the human perspective, i.e., millions of years. Terraformers take note.

"The atmosphere . . . would have persisted for about 70 million years before being lost to space."
not rated yet Oct 05, 2017
Wasn't there a theory which said the Moon was created after a massive Asteroid tore through the Earth and whatever atmosphere sensors are detected might simply be remnants of Earth's atmosphere which got collected during the violent collision
5 / 5 (1) Oct 06, 2017
They mentioned ATT the moon was about 130,000 Km from Earth. So using good old inverse square suggestion:) it would seem gravitational interactions would be about 9 times greater. What would that have done to Earthy tides? How much bigger would they have been back then?

Maybe that would partly explain why the Earth was pretty warm in the past while the Sun was colder.
not rated yet Oct 06, 2017
Why don't they say the moon at some time in the past was only one third of its current distance of 400,000kms rather than saying it was three times closer?
not rated yet Oct 07, 2017
I also note that articles seem to make a point of explaining in a completed different way or different angle the same major point which seems to be the goal. Why would this be so?
not rated yet Oct 09, 2017
That estimate in combination with the following statement strongly suggests a deposited atmosphere, even on a body with only 1/6 of Earth gravity, can last a tremendously long time from the human perspective, i.e., millions of years. Terraformers take note.

^^^EXACTLY. Way too often terraforming critics talk about how pointless it is bc smaller bodies to hold an atmosphere, without comprehending the timescales involved. 70 million is fairly short geologically, but is roughly 700X as long as Homo Sapiens has existed.
1 / 5 (4) Oct 09, 2017
Usual nasa fake data. Irwin I. Shapiro, astrophysicist at Harvard Smithsonian Center said.. Re the anomalies and unanswered Qs about the Moon, the best explanation for the Moon doesn't (cannot), exist. Photos show construction banding on the hollow moon's almost pure titanium surface.
Is the moon an artificial satellite intelligently built, placed and controlled from within by an advanced race? Yes!


not rated yet Oct 10, 2017
70 million is fairly short geologically, but is roughly 700X as long as Homo Sapiens has existed.

About 7 000 human histories from city building to today.

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