Volcanic eruptions powered the moon's ancient atmosphere

A long, long time ago, volcanic activity on the moon created a fascinating atmosphere around our lunar neighbor.

Amanda Kooser
Amanda Kooser
Freelance writer Amanda C. Kooser covers gadgets and tech news with a twist for CNET. When not wallowing in weird gear and iPad apps for cats, she can be found tinkering with her 1956 DeSoto.
2 min read

This artist's vision imagines what the moon would have looked like with an atmosphere produced by lava eruptions and venting gases.


When you see the moon these days, you probably notice it seems like a quiet place compared to Earth. There are no swirling storms, no blue oceans and no active volcanoes. But it wasn't always that way. 

A new NASA study shows the ancient moon once had an atmosphere fed by lava eruptions and venting gases. 

Scientists with NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center and the Lunar and Planetary Institute took a new look at the moon's basalt seas, called maria. Those date to a busy era of volcanic activity when magma poured out on the moon's surface. "Analyses of Apollo samples indicate those magmas carried gas components, such as carbon monoxide, the ingredients for water, sulfur, and other volatile species," says a release from the Lunar and Planetary Institute.

The researchers considered the amount of gases that came from the lava and believe they would have formed a "transient atmosphere" around 3 to 4 billion years ago. They estimate the atmosphere would have lasted around 70 million years before dissipating into space. 

In 2013, NASA discussed the existence of the moon's current atmosphere, which contains "unusual gases, including sodium and potassium," and "an infinitesimal amount of air when compared to Earth's atmosphere." NASA likens the density of the moon's atmosphere now to the density at the fringes of Earth's atmosphere where the International Space Station orbits the planet. 

A NASA artist's illustration shows the ancient atmosphere described in the study would have been dense enough to be visible. 

Future missions may find further evidence of the moon's atmospheric past in the satellite's cold polar regions. "Volatiles trapped in icy deposits could provide air and fuel for astronauts conducting lunar surface operations and, potentially, for missions beyond the Moon," the release notes.

The researchers published a paper on the findings online this week in the journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters with the title "Lunar volcanism produced a transient atmosphere around the ancient Moon." 

Tour every planet in our solar system through NASA images

See all photos

Life, Disrupted: In Europe, millions of refugees are still searching for a safe place to settle. Tech should be part of the solution. But is it?

Technically Literate: Original works of short fiction with unique perspectives on tech, exclusively on CNET.