A Question Raised by the Observed Absence of an Atmosphere in the Moon


IT is known that there is physical evidence of an absence of atmosphere in the moon. It would appear reasonable to conclude that the moon at one time had an atmosphere; for, according to the generally-accepted principles of Laplace, which make the sun and members of the solar system to have a common nebulous origin, it would seem very extraordinary if the particular offshoot of the common nebula which formed the moon had no gaseous constituent in it. If we admit, therefore, as probable that the moon at one time had an atmosphere, the question naturally suggests itself as to what has become of it. Various surmises have been hazarded in reply to this. I would venture to submit the following as a possible explanation, which, as far as it goes, is based on accepted principles:—It is known to be a demonstrated fact in connection with the established kinetic theory of gases that the velocities of the molecules of a gas vary among themselves from zero to an indefinitely great velocity, i.e., a velocity to which apparently no limits can be set. It is true that the molecules which in the accidents of collision among themselves acquire these enormous velocities, have been mathematically proved to be relatively few in number, the greater number of the molecules possessing velocities approaching the mean value. But it would seem to follow necessarily that molecules situated in the top stratum of any atmosphere, and which acquire these enormous (indeterminable) velocities, can sometimes overcome gravity, and be projected into space, so as not to return; as it is a known fact that only a finite velocity is required to effect this result. I have therefore to suggest that by this cause the moon's atmosphere has gradually disappeared. It is probable, no doubt, that it would take a vast period of time to have brought about this result, but we have an almost unlimited time at disposal. It might possibly be asked, How is it that the earth's atmosphere has not shared the same fate? In answer to this I would reply, first, that the value of gravity on the earth is known to be very much greater than on the moon, and second, that possibly (for aught we can tell) part of the earth's atmosphere may have thus disappeared; or the earth's atmosphere may be less dense at present than at one time, for anything we can say to the contrary. It would seem a curious fact to note in connection with this that there would be apparently grounds for inferring that the constitution or composition of the earth's (or any other planet's) atmosphere might have changed from the above cause, as evidently the lighter gaseous constituents, whose molecules acquire in the accidents of collision the highest velocities, would be first dissipated into space in the above manner. Thus, for example, any trace of that very prevalent constituent of the universe, hydrogen, that might have at one time existed in the earth's atmosphere, would have tended to become relatively rapidly eliminated, as the molecules of hydrogen are known to possess a normal velocity about four times as great as that of the constituent molecules of the earth's atmosphere.1 It might be said that changes so great as those above indicated are scarcely realisable, but then it should be kept in view that we have an almost limitless range of time to draw on, and it is generally admitted to be very important to take the effect of time into due consideration, as, for example, is done in the case of geology, where mountain ranges are recognised by incontrovertible physical proof to have been carved out by the slow disintegrating action of rain and atmospheric influences prevailing through countless centuries. The gradual disappearance of an atmosphere (earth's or moon's) under the above cause might possibly be compared in slowness of operation to the other cosmical changes that the solar system is known to be undergoing, such as the gradual approach of the earth to the sun (and of the moon to the earth) through the friction of the material media in space, the accomplished stoppage of the moon's axial rotation by tidal action on its mass, and the gradual diminution of the earth's rotative velocity from the same cause. These slow changes, imperceptible in the range of human experience, become important in large time epochs, and it becomes desirable in the interests of truth, in tracing back events, to give due weight to these time epochs. In suggesting the above explanation, I have endeavoured to confine myself strictly within the limits of mathematically proved facts as a basis to draw deductions upon, and I should be glad to accept any criticisms that might be offered, either with the view to point out a difficulty or confirm the truth.

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PRESTON, S. A Question Raised by the Observed Absence of an Atmosphere in the Moon. Nature 19, 3–4 (1878). https://doi.org/10.1038/019003d0

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