Solar storms remove a surprisingly large amount of material from the lunar surface, computer simulations have revealed, leading NASA scientists to speculate that solar storms may also be a major factor in atmospheric loss on Mars and other planets. This is the first time researchers have attempted to predict the effects of sun activity on the Moon. Details of the simulations appear in the Journal of Geophysical Research Planets.
According to Rosemary Killen, from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, coronal mass ejections (CMEs) from the Sun impact the lunar surface and atoms are ejected in a process called "sputtering." CMEs - a more intense version of the normal solar wind - are effectively a diffuse stream of plasma that's blown outward from the surface of the Sun. A strong CME may contain around a billion tons of plasma moving at up to a million miles per hour.
"The Moon has just the barest wisp of an atmosphere, technically called an exosphere because it is so tenuous, which leaves it vulnerable to CME effects. We found that when this massive cloud of plasma strikes the Moon, it acts like a sandblaster and easily removes volatile material from the surface," explained NASA co-researcher William Farrell. "The model predicts 100 to 200 tons of lunar material could be stripped off the lunar surface during the typical 2-day passage of a CME."
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