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The Moon Had An Atmosphere Billions of Years Ago

S u m m a r y :
The moon used to have an atmosphere 3 to 4 billion years ago thanks to volcanic eruptions, says a new study published in the journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters.

The Ancient Moon

Science helps us to understand not only our present but also our past—and it does the same for other entities in our universe, like our moon. A new scientific investigation suggests that our satellite had an atmosphere that was the result of a rapid release of gases from volcanic activity in its early years. The layer of air formed because the accumulation of gases above the moon surface was happening at a more rapid rate than their escape into space.

Artist’s impression of the Moon, showing a basin from which lava erupted, emitting gases that might have formed an atmosphere. Photo credits: NASA MSFC.

Studying Lunar Magma Samples

Volcanic eruptions are thought to have been common on the moon back in the day. Volcanic basalt can be easily spotted in large impact basins; it came from the interior of the moon when the latter’s temperature was extremely high, emitting plumes of magma. Samples of this magma were collected during the Apollo mission, and analyses show the presence of gaseous compounds like carbon monoxide together with sulphur and the building blocks of water.

Gases in Moon Lava

The new research focuses on the quantities of gases that came from the lunar lava: these gases seem to have once accumulated around the moon, constituting a temporary atmosphere, which was thickest when the volcanic activity was at its most intense, around 3.5 billion years ago. This lunar atmosphere would have remained untouched for 70 million years from then, and was ultimately lost into space.

What Does a Lunar Atmosphere Mean?

The moon having had an atmosphere comes with a number of implications that might help researchers with further research. For instance, volatile compounds might have moved from the atmosphere to cold regions of the lunar poles. If this pool of trapped volatiles still exists, it may serve as a source of ice for future lunar exploration projects. Compounds in icy deposits can provide astronauts with air and fuel to sustain them during their missions.

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