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Powerful Solar Storms Could Vaporize, Melt Soil in Moon's Polar Regions

Jan 09, 2017 10:07 AM EST

A recent study funded by the National Aeronautical and Space Administration (NASA) revealed that powerful solar storms could charge up the soil in the permanently shadowed regions (PSR) near the lunar poles. The accumulated particles could then spark that could vaporize and melt the soil.

The study, published in the journal Icarus, showed that the highly energetic, electrically charged particles released during an explosive solar activity, such as flares and coronal mass ejections, could accumulate and create a miniature lighting strike that could have a similar impact on the surface as a small meteoroids. Impacts from small meteoroids constantly churn or "garden" the top layer of the dust and rock, called regolith, on the moon.

"About 10 percent of this gardened layer has been melted or vaporized by meteoroid impacts," said lead author Andrew Jordan of the University of New Hampshire, Durham, in a press release. "We found that in the moon's permanently shadowed regions, sparks from solar storms could melt or vaporize a similar percentage."

Due to having almost no atmosphere, the surface of the moon is exposed and vulnerable to harsh space environments. Aside from being bombarded and churned by small meteoroids, the moon may also experience explosive effects of accumulated ions and electrons thrown by powerful solar storms

These ions and electrons slam directly in the moon's surface, accumulating in two layers beneath the surface. Ions are too bulky to penetrate deep into the surface, making it to be more likely to be hit by atoms in the regolith and forming a layer closer to the surface. On the other hand, electrons are tiny enough to for a deeper layer from the surface.

Strong solar storms could cause the regolith in the PSR accumulate charge in the two layers of particles until they released explosively, creating a miniature lightning strike. The frigidity of the sol in the PSRs makes the regolith an extremely poor conductor of electricity. Due to this, the regolith dissipates the buildup of the charge too slowly. This makes the avoidance of the destructive effects of sudden electric discharge called dialectic breakdown, which could then alter the regolith.

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