There are no active volcanoes on the Moon today, but recent discoveries show that the Moon was geologically active for much longer than previously believed.
4 to 2 billion years ago, a series of volcanic eruptions erupted on the Moon, covering much of its surface with basalt lava. As the lava cooled, it created the dark spots, or Marias, that give the Moon’s face its familiar appearance today.
Now, new research from CU Boulder suggests volcanoes may have left another lasting impact on the lunar surface: patches of ice that dot the Moon’s poles and, in some places, could measure tens or even hundreds of meters. thick.
“We think of it as frost on the Moon that has built up over time,” said Andrew Wilcoskilead author of the new study and a graduate student in the Department of Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences (APS) and the Laboratory of Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) at CU Boulder.
The researchers relied on computer models to try to recreate conditions on the Moon long before complex life appeared on Earth. They found that ancient lunar volcanoes spewed out huge amounts of water vapor, which then settled on the surface, forming reserves of ice that may still be hiding under newer layers of dust and debris.
“It’s possible that 5 or 10 meters below the surface you have large patches of ice, a potential resource for future lunar explorers who will need water to drink and turn into rocket fuel,” says the co-author of the study. Paul Haynelecturer in APS and LASP.
The new study adds to a growing body of evidence that suggests the Moon could be flooded with far more water than scientists once thought. In a 2020 study, Hayne and his colleagues estimated that large areas of the lunar surface might be able to trap and cling to ice, mostly near the north and south poles of the Moon. Where all this water came from in the first place is unclear.
“There are many potential sources right now,” says Hayne. “Volcanoes could be big.” The planetary scientist explained that 2 to 4 billion years ago, tens of thousands of volcanoes erupted on its surface, generating huge rivers and lakes of lava, much like the features you might see in Hawaii today, only much more immense. “They dwarf almost all eruptions on Earth.”
Recent research of scientists from the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston shows that these volcanoes likely also ejected towering clouds composed primarily of carbon monoxide and water vapor. These clouds then swirled around the moon, potentially creating a thin, short-lived atmosphere.
Based on this scenario, the new study simulated what happened to this atmosphere.
The team used estimates that, at its peak, the Moon erupted every 22,000 years, on average. The researchers then tracked how volcanic gases may have swirled around the Moon, escaping into space over time. And, they found, conditions may have turned freezing. According to the group’s estimates, about 41% of the water in volcanoes may have condensed on the Moon as ice.
“The atmospheres escaped over about 1,000 years, so there was plenty of time for the ice to form,” Wilcoski said.
The group calculated that around 5,000 cubic kilometers of volcanic water could have condensed into ice during this time. That’s more water than there is right now Lake Michigan. And the research suggests that much of that lunar water may still be present today. Most of this ice likely accumulated near the Moon’s poles and may be buried under several meters of lunar dust and debris deposited by meteorite impacts over the past 2 billion years.
The paper “Accumulation of polar ice from transient atmospheres of volcanic origin on the Moon” is published in the journal The Journal of Planetary Science (2022). Material provided by the University of Colorado Boulder.
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