When the first Apollo astronauts landed on the moon, they didn’t know what to expect. Many surprising lunar discoveries were made on those first few trips such as the discovery that the lunar surface is composed of many of the same elements as Earth’s soil – an unknown prior to the collection of lunar soil samples. While the Apollo astronauts were on the lunar surface, they witnessed an eerie glow appearing at the horizon at sunset, and strange glowing columns rising from the surface at sunrise. For years, the source of the strange glow cloud puzzled astronomers and astronauts alike. Now, a new study published in Geophysical Research Letters claims to have discovered the cause of this phenomenon.
According to the study, a strange type of electrostatic charge buildup is responsible for creating the moon’s levitating clouds of lunar dust. The researchers have dubbed this phenomenon the “patched charge model,” and it has to do with the tiny pockets and gaps between dust particles on the lunar surface. Charged particles such as photons or electrons from solar radiation can get lodged in between atoms of lunar dust, creating patches of ionization which send the subsequently charged dust particles into the lunar sky:
We experimentally show that the emission and re-absorption of photoelectron and/or secondary electron at the walls of microcavities formed between neighboring dust particles below the surface are responsible for generating unexpectedly large negative charges and intense particle-particle repulsive forces to mobilize and lift off dust particles.
Yeah I know. It’s not as cool as some sort of intergalactic dust-based glow cloud alien, but hey, it’s some pretty cool science, right? This study could help astronomers better understand the physics of matter on airless cosmic bodies such as our moon.
According to a NASA press release, this discovery could shed light on some other mysterious lunar phenomena, such as the fact that lunar dust is carried across vast regions of the moon’s surface without wind or water to help it along. Could this phenomenon also be behind the mysteriously waving flag in the Apollo 11 footage?