New NASA research suggests our Moon once had an atmosphere

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 our Moon had an atmosphere 3 to 4 billion years ago. The research is in the Earth and Planetary Science Letters.

Scientists studying old moon rock brought back from the Apollo 15, and 17 missions say that ancient volcanic eruptions created enough gas to develop a significant atmosphere and that atmosphere may have lasted for 70 million years.

“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,”

The Apollo samples allowed Dr. Debra H. Needham, Research Scientist of NASA Marshall Space Flight Center, and Dr. David A. Kring, Senior Staff Scientist, at the Lunar and Planetary Institute to determine approximately when the eruptions took place and what type of gasses were produced.

“These gas volumes are sufficiently large to produce a significant atmospheric surface pressure,” the research states.

NASA moon atmosphere
A time sequence of lunar mare basalt emplacement in 0.5 Ga time increments, with red areas in each time step denoting the most recently emplaced basalts. Credit: Debra Needham
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The researchers believe the gases were likely enough to create a global atmosphere.

“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,” David Kring said in an interview with phys.org.

The research also indicates that during peak volcanic eruptions on the Moon surface 3- 4 billion years ago, pressure was higher than Mars surface pressure today.

Their research is significant because it may provide critical information about a source of ice suitable for a sustained lunar exploration program.  If volatiles from the once existent atmosphere is trapped in the lunar poles, it may provide a source of air and fuel for astronauts conducting missions.

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