Moon's Dust Cloud Permanently Enshrouds it in a Lopsided Layer

First Posted: Jun 18, 2015 06:59 AM EDT

Our moon may actually have clouds. Scientists have discovered that the moon is engulfed in a permanent-but lopsided-dust cloud that increases in density when annual events like the Geminids spew shooting stars.

The cloud was first discovered using data from NASA's Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE), which launched in September 2013 and orbited the moon for about six months. A detector on board called the Lunar Dust Experiment (LDEX) charted more than 140,000 impacts during the mission.

"Identifying the permanent dust cloud engulfing the moon was a nice gift from this mission," said Mihaly Horanyi, one of the researchers, in a news release. "We can carry these findings over to studies of other airless planetary objects like the moons of other planets and asteroids."

The cloud is made up primarily of tiny dust grains kicked up from the moon's surface by the impact of high-speed, interplanetary dust particles. A single dust particle from a comet striking the moon's surface lofts thousands of smaller dust specks into the airless environment, and the lunar cloud is maintained by regular impacts from such particles.

Learning about the dusty environments of space also has practical applications. Knowing where the dust is and where it's headed in the solar system, for example, could help mitigate hazards for future human exploration, including dust particles damaging spacecraft or harming astronauts.

Many of the dust particles impacting the lunar surface are traveling at thousands of miles per hour in a retrograde, or counterclockwise orbit around the sun, which is the opposite orbital direction of the solar system's planets. This causes high-speed, near head-on collisions with the dust particles and the moon's leading surface as the Earth-moon system travel together around the sun.

The findings reveal a bit more about the moon as also possibly about other planetary objects.

The findings are published in the journal Nature.

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