Since the dawn of mankind on Earth, we’ve always been fascinated by the moon. Scientists say that the moon is just over 4.5 billion years old, and was formed after debris impacted the Earth shortly after its formation, and has been in our orbit ever since. With each new generation, we’re learning more and more about the moon and its history, and NASA believes that they’ve found some groundbreaking information regarding this celestial body.
The moon does have an atmosphere currently, but works more like a vacuum that humans simply could not live within. NASA says that might not have always been the case, however, as a study claims that around three to four billion years ago, an atmosphere was formed. This happened due to volcanic eruptions that accumulated around the moon, and that the atmosphere was at its thickest 3.5 billion years ago.
When looking at the surface of the moon, it’s easy to see that there was plenty of volcanic activity at one point, though we didn’t know that an atmosphere had once formed because of these volcanoes. Lava flows that once occurred on the moon’s surface would eventually stop, and astronauts who have landed on the moon have collected samples from the surface to study what was once living there.
NASA determined that the lava flows had essential elements of life, including carbon monoxide and other gases, even those that could result in water once flowing on the moon. Using these samples, researchers determined that the moon’s atmosphere was thick with these gasses, and that the “transient atmosphere” existed for around 70 million years.
So why does the moon no longer have an atmosphere like we have on Earth? There are a couple of different factors at play. Firstly, the moon doesn’t have the magnetism and large mass that the Earth has, making it difficult for a permanent atmosphere to exist. Because of that, solar winds were able to dissipate the moon’s atmosphere, leaving it exposed to the elements for billions of years.
Dr. Debra H. Needham of NASA was one of the lead authors of the study, and she said “The total amount of (water) 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 lunar poles. This means some of the lunar polar volatiles we see at the lunar poles may have originated inside the moon.”
Co-author Dr. David A. Kring added that “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 researchers also noted that when the moon had its atmosphere, it was much closer to Earth and would have appeared three times larger in the sky.
The former atmosphere of the moon still couldn’t have sustained human life, but it’s still interesting to note a change in what we once thought. The air pressure that the atmosphere formed on the moon would have been around one percent to what we experience on the Earth today. “If you had any temperature gradient on the lunar surface, there would have been wind,” Needham added. Those winds are what froze certain regions of the moon after the atmosphere vanished.
This has been important research as there have always been ongoing talks about colonizing the moon, or perhaps even setting up bases there for space travel. Volatiles on the moon have become more intense in recent years, allowing us to predict learn more about the origins and future of both the moon and the Earth. These volatiles that are contained in ice on the moon have been found to be useful in space missions, as they can provide both air and fuel.
One person who’s excited about the news is SpaceX and Tesla founder Elon Musk, who has been in talks about building a base on the moon, or perhaps even Mars. He’s said in the past that he wants to establish a human colony on Mars, and the moon would make for the perfect “rest area,” so to say. “We could conceivably go to the moon, and I have nothing against going to the moon,” he said recently.
Musk also said that one thing holding back moon development was the lack of atmosphere and resources. If the new studies by NASA hold up to be true, there might be more resources than we thought before, allowing the moon to be the perfect fueling spot between Earth and Mars, opening up a whole new future. Just don’t expect to buy Martian property in our lifetimes.