The Moon's Atmosphere

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  • 0:01 The Moon's Atmosphere
  • 0:56 Properties of the…
  • 2:32 The Moon's Gases
  • 4:13 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Artem Cheprasov

Artem has a doctor of veterinary medicine degree.

This lesson will go over the lunar atmosphere, its composition, where it gets it atmosphere from, how it may lose its atmosphere, and what the technical term for the lunar atmosphere is.

The Moon's Atmosphere

I bet that somewhere in your home or place of work there is a box about the size of a meter on each side. A meter is a bit more than three feet in length. If you do have such a box, you can probably see that it's not that big. That box, one meter to each side, can contain almost the entire lunar atmosphere if it were to be compressed to the density of water. Lunar means pertaining to the moon, just in case you weren't sure.

By contrast, if Earth's atmosphere were compacted into such a dense state, it would fill a cube that is 100 miles on each side, as opposed to one meter. Quite clearly, the moon doesn't have much in the way of an atmosphere. Its density at the surface is like the density of the Earth's atmosphere where the International Space Station orbits. Nevertheless, there is enough interesting stuff about the lunar atmosphere that can fit into this lesson.

Properties of the Lunar Atmosphere

The lunar atmosphere is composed largely of helium, neon, argon, and hydrogen. Some molecules of ammonia, methane, potassium, sodium, and carbon dioxide may exist as well. The mass of this thin atmosphere is a few thousand kilograms. Again, that's not a lot. Actually, there is so little that we seriously polluted the lunar atmosphere during the Apollo missions to the moon. You thought we've damaged our planet's atmosphere with all that exhaust coming out of cars, planes, and factories; the moon has suffered a lot too. Luckily enough, the moon is so cold that many of the pollutants we put into the lunar atmosphere froze and dropped to the lunar surface.

The reason the moon is so cold is because its atmosphere's so thin! The atmosphere is like the insulation in the wall of your home. If it's thick, it will keep the heat in and the cold out in the winter. If you've got thin layers of insulation, you may have ice forming inside the home! Because of this thin atmosphere, the temperature on the moon varies dramatically. When it's hot, it's a blistering 400 Kelvin (260 Fahrenheit), when it's cold, it's a freezing 100 Kelvin (-280 Fahrenheit). The 300 Kelvin difference is humongous compared to the average temperature fluctuations of less than 20 Kelvin (36 Fahrenheit) between night and day on Earth.

If there's any upside to this crazy lack of any significant atmosphere and the consequences thereof, it's that the sky on the moon is always black and starry, even at high noon.

The Moon's Gases

So, where does this thin atmosphere even come from? The hydrogen and helium is captured from the passing solar wind, and the argon and helium is produced through radioactive decay of rocks on the moon's surface. You'd think that these two things would, over millions of years, build up a big enough atmosphere.

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