While the Moon could be considered geologically dead today, that wasn’t the case in the past. Billions of years ago, many volcanic eruptions happened on the surface of the moon, blanketing many parts of its surface with hot lava. After cooling down over the years, this created the dark blotches or maria, giving the moon its appearance today.
But new research from CU Boulder suggests that volcanoes may have left another lasting impact on the lunar surface: sheets of ice that are sometimes hundreds of metres thick. The research has been documented in an article titled, “Polar Ice Accumulation from Volcanically Induced Transient Atmospheres on the Moon,” published in The Planetary Science Journal.
The researchers used computer simulations to recreate conditions on the moon long before complex life evolved on Earth. They discovered that ancient volcanoes on the satellite spewed massive amounts of water vapour which later settled on the surface, eventually forming stores of ice.
According to the researchers, if humans had been alive at the time, we would have been able to see a sliver of that frost near the border between day and night on the moon’s surface. This research adds to a body of evidence that suggests that the moon may have a lot more water than scientists earlier believed. A 2020 study estimated that nearly 15,000 square kilometres on the moon’s surface could be capable of trapping and storing ice; mostly near the north and south poles.
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Volcanoes could be a big source of that water. More than 2 to 4 billion years ago, tens of thousands of volcanoes could have erupted across the lunar surface, generating huge rivers and lakes of lava.
Recent research shows that these volcanoes probably ejected massive clouds mostly made up of carbon monoxide and water vapour. These clouds then swirled around above the mean, creating a thin and momentary atmosphere.
To test this hypothesis, researchers at CU Boulder tried to create a model of the lunar surface billions of years ago. The researchers estimated that the moon experienced one eruption every 22,000 years, on average, at its peak. They then tracked how gases from these eruptions may have moved around the moon, escaping into space over time.
They then discovered that roughly 41 per cent of the water from volcanoes may have condensed onto the moon as ice. The researchers calculated that around 8 quadrillion pounds of volcanic water could have condensed as ice during the period.
During future missions to the Moon, astronauts could perhaps tap into these water resources for their consumption purpose instead of going through the expensive procedure of transporting it on rockets from Earth. But these reserves might not necessarily be easy to find. Most of the ice has probably accumulated near the moon’s poles and may even be buried under several metres of lunar soil or regolith.