Moon’s fire fountains mystery explained by gassy interior

25 Aug 2015

The dramatic-sounding fire fountains that covered the surface of the moon eons ago during its formation have long been a mystery to astronomers, but new research suggests the satellite’s former gassy interior created the phenomenon.

The existence of fire fountains on the surface of the moon has been known for a number of years now following the accepted science that the moon was formed following a collision between Earth and another planetary body of equivalent size to Mars.

The extremity of the collision and the new moon’s internal structure created an explosive, volcanic result, which left its surface covered in such fire fountains and much magma flowing on its surface.

Until now, how the magma was pushed to the surface had remained a mystery, but new research claims that the answer could be something well-known to us: carbon dioxide (CO2).

According to Space, by examining volcanic glass on the moon’s surface, the researchers who have published their findings suggest that the carbon-laden magma rising from below mixed with oxygen to form CO2.

In doing so, the pressure exerted on the magma waned, causing it to bubble and burst, leading to the fire fountains.

A remarkable achievement

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Simplifying the explanation, co-author of the study, Alberto Saal, said: “Imagine that you have a soda. If you open the lid, you will see that a lot of gas will [escape] from the liquid — that’s because you decreased the pressure.”

Published in Nature Geoscience, the team’s findings come following the same team’s discovery back in 2008 that there was evidence of water in the volcanic glass, which had disproven previous theories of the moon’s origins.

Relating it back to the examples that occurred on the moon billions of years ago during its formation, Saal said: “As the melts move from the deep to the surface … you get more and more bubbles, because the liquid cannot hold these gases in it as you decrease the pressure.”

In fact, the molten magma was only discovered following the creation of a new probe technique reducing the detection limits of carbon by two orders of magnitude allowing for a measurement of as low as 0.1 part per million.

“This breakthrough depended on the ability of Carnegie’s NanoSIMS ion probe to measure incredibly low levels of carbon, on objects that are the diameter of a human hair,” said the developer of the technique, Erik Hauri. “It is really a remarkable achievement both scientifically and technically.”

Volcanic eruption image via Shutterstock

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic