The Moon Once Had An Atmosphere?

By Nathaniel Scharping | October 6, 2017 10:43 am
An artist's conception of the ancient moon with lava venting gases into a thin atmosphere. (Credit: NASA MSFC)

An artist’s conception of the ancient moon with lava venting gases into a thin atmosphere. (Credit: NASA MSFC)

Barren and desolate today, our moon was once swathed by a thin atmosphere.

Born from geothermal eruptions when the moon was still young, gaseous traces of carbon monoxide, sulfur, hydrogen and oxygen once swirled across the moon’s surface, say researchers from NASA. The atmosphere would have persisted for about 70 million years, they estimate, and existed three to four billion years ago, soon after our rocky companion was formed.

The new findings, published in Earth and Planetary Science Letters, come from analyses of large lava flows on the moon’s surface called maria, paired with samples of moon rocks from the Apollo missions. This gave the researchers an idea of what kind of volatile gasses would have been escaping from the lava, and examining the volume of the lava flows indicated how much would have been present.

Given the amount of solidified lava present, they estimate that the atmosphere would have exerted at its maximum a pressure of around 1 kilopascal, or around 50 percent higher than Mars’ atmosphere today. That’s still thin compared to the Earth, however, at sea level the pressure is just over 100 kilopascals. Over time, the moon’s weak gravity was unable to hold on to the gases, and they were lost to space.

It’s not totally accurate to say the moon has no atmosphere today, as there are scarce traces of gas flying around, created as photons and particles from the solar wind impact rocks on the surface, as well as from meteor impacts. But don’t expect to feel the caress of the lunar wind, as its atmosphere is roughly equivalent to what’s found near the International Space Station in orbit around the Earth. The Apollo 17 mission captured some of these particles, and found helium and argon, as well as potential traces of other elements on the moon.

Even the ancient atmosphere was far too thin for anything to survive there, but the researchers say traces of those gassier days may remain at the moon’s poles. In permanently shadowed regions there, water ice could exist, locked in place for billions of years following its emergence from beneath the moon’s surface. Such reserves could be an important resource for future astronauts or inhabitants on the moon.

The atmosphere could have also fueled chemical reactions with the surface rocks, offering an explanation for the presence of magnetite in lunar rocks brought back to Earth, a mineral that requires concentrations of oxygen not normally found on the moon.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, top posts
MORE ABOUT: solar system
  • Rowland Stevens

    That report also says: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.

    In other words there were previous reports JUST LIKE THIS ONE THAT WERE WRONG. So that means they didn’t know what they were talking about.

    “This work dramatically changes our view”?????? Who is “our”. The intellectual communities just keep producing this ever changing intellectual gibberish.

    And the statement when it had atmosphere it was nearly 3 times closer to the earth is absolute foolish non sense. Unless the moon substantially changed its speed or the earth substantially changed size it is common sense that the distance the moon settled in orbit that has been maintained for billions of years is related to the gravity force of the earth’s capacity to modify the then existing speed of the moon such that it kept zig zaging back and forth across the center of its orbit’s path by changes in the angle of application of the gravity force which changes the effective gravity force applied available to do so an the speed with which the moon approached the earth. You don’t have to be a PhD to figure that out. (I know I have a JD where practicing lawyers separate perceptions and adamant assertions of truth that turn out not to be such, all the time) But you are too busy with these science fiction fantasy views. In fact it is also common sense that if there is life on the earth THERE IS ABSOLUTELY NO REASON TO EVEN BEGIN TO THINK THE …..ONLY PLACE THERE IS LIFE IS THEREFORE ON THE EARTH. And yet that is the primary reason given for spending huge billions to go there to establish or not whether life exist else where. That just duplicates the intellectual stupidity of even beginning to think, but which lasted for 1500 years, that the piddly earth was the center of rotation of billions of stars in the universe. And no one has ever bothered to ask the common sense question how could we intellectuals have been so stupid for so long. So the stream of intellectually stupid assertions just keeps flowing for obvious reasons …. to justify the grants given for things like “determining IF life exists else where. For starters the formula to determine gravity force at distances of the moon or Mars is obviously seriously wrong. Nasa is just very fortunate that orbits are formed without the need for PhD driven computations. And what possible difference does it make whether Mars or the moon did or did not have any atmosphere …. much less that digging into Mars an inch or two is likely to tell us anything WE NEED TO KNOW THAT digging into the earth not only inches but miles has not already told us.And you all think you are digging into a pristine untouched ground that can reveal what happen billions of years ago. The chances are over whelming that the inches you are looking at on the surface have been changed more than once. so what? In fact 13 of the basic premises in the physical world I was taught ….. duplicated the “piddly” stupidity of the stars rotating around US. And you are still teaching them and people are dying because of these teaching all the time. And you don’t have a clue as to how pervasively wrong these teachings are. Just like Trump and Congress are just the tip of the ice berg of stupidity. It just doesn’t take any discussion or an economic PhD to know that reality doesn’t give a damn about your theories that government doesn’t have to have a balance budget to sustain an workable economic system. And we stupidly just compounded the problem over the last decade by going into debt an additional 4 trillion in government bonds the fed didn’t pay a dime to get control of to add to the trillions in debt ….. and inflated the economy money supply on top of the debt! And it was the lack of restraint that taking pride in paying for what you want that caused several massive “government programs” that tried to also do fantasy stuff with no basis in reality … which caused the recession in the first place.

    And if we had had to pay for them on a real time basis, they would have fallen by the way side of obvious unworkableness a long time ago as the true “cost” of them for the first time became apparent. But if you are willing to go trillions in debt …. No Problemo ever appears. Until reality takes over and you end up not only losing what you paid for …. but chaos for the balance unpaid.

    As the years pass, the absolute ignorance and stupidity flow constantly of gibberish into the sea of life is inexorably drowning all of us at any ever increasing rate that makes global warming, even if true a minor issue. But it is not, because the intellectual community never teaches that mathematics, including the procedure of “averaging” is only significant if it is appropriate to add what you are adding together. ie: adding 2 steam locomotives and 2 new born babies just doesn’t add up to 4 of anything that is meaningful. I suggest we start using common sense to keep us orientated to the real world not fantasy. And it is tragic. Humans can do all sorts of amazing things that reality forces can not do, if we ever decide to drag our selves out of our self made pit of stupidity to the solid dry land of common senses.

    And this article may not be perfect ….. but I suggest its hell of a lot better than yours. And one along the same lines should be published as a common sense replacement.

  • andguideher

    send hillary to breathe it in

    • Maia

      This is a science article, not a political hit piece.

      • OWilson

        How about we send Trump? :)



Briefing you on the must-know news and trending topics in science and technology today.

See More


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Collapse bottom bar