New research ‘completely changes’ our understanding of the moon

20 Oct 2017

An artist’s conception of what the moon would have looked like billions of years ago. Image: NASA

More secrets surrounding the moon’s past have recently been unlocked showing evidence for a ‘significant’ atmosphere.

When we think of moons with atmosphere, we don’t tend to think of our moon but of the distant moons in our solar system, such as Titan.

However, new research to be presented by Debra Needham of the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center has found evidence that Earth’s natural satellite did indeed have an atmosphere that could have contributed to all of the water detected on it.

The latest analysis suggests that the moon’s atmosphere existed billions of years ago and was thicker than the one that exists around Mars today. With an atmosphere like that, the moon could have had windstorms and was likely capable of weathering rock formations.

Based on estimates of lava eruptions in the moon’s ancient past, the atmosphere would have lasted for approximately 70m years and comprised carbon monoxide, sulphur and water.

Completely changes our view of the moon

While the lava plains formed on the moon’s surface – appearing as the smooth areas we see on its surface today – the decline of volcanic activity also contributed to the decline in its atmosphere.

Eventually, what was left of the atmosphere either became lost in space or fell to the moon’s surface.

The latter is now believed to have contributed to the discovery of water on the lunar surface. At one point, this was so abundant that if 0.1pc of the erupted water migrated to the permanently shadowed regions on the moon, it could account for all of the water detected there.

As we look to the future and potential human habitats on the moon, increasing our understanding of where the moon’s water came from will help scientists and mission planners alike to know if the resource is renewable. Until then, more research is needed to determine the exact sources.

Speaking of her research, Needham said: “It just completely changes the way we think of the Moon. It becomes a much more dynamic planetary body to explore.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic