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“About 10 percent of this gardened layer has been melted or vaporized by meteoroid impacts,” said Andrew Jordan of the University of New Hampshire, Durham. “We found that in the moon’s permanently shadowed regions, sparks from solar storms could melt or vaporize a similar percentage.” Jordan is lead author of a paper on this recently published research published in Icarus.
“This process isn’t completely new to space science — electrostatic discharges can occur in any poorly conducting (dielectric) material exposed to intense space radiation, and is actually the leading cause of spacecraft anomalies,” said Timothy Stubbs of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, a co-author of the paper. The team’s analysis was based on this experience. From spacecraft studies and analysis of samples from NASA’s Apollo lunar missions, the researchers knew how often large solar storms occur. From previous lunar research, they estimated that the top millimeter of regolith would be buried by meteoroid impacts after about a million years, so it would be too deep to be subject to electric charging during solar storms. Then they estimated the energy that would be deposited over a million years by both meteoroid impacts and dielectric breakdown driven by solar storms, and found that each process releases enough energy to alter the regolith by a similar amount.
“Lab experiments show that dielectric breakdown is an explosive process on a tiny scale,” said Jordan. “During breakdown, channels could be melted and vaporized through the grains of soil. Some of the grains may even be blown apart by the tiny explosion. The PSRs are important locations on the moon, because they contain clues to the moon’s history, such as the role that easily vaporized material like water has played. But to decipher that history, we need to know in what ways PSRs are not pristine; that is, how they have been weathered by the space environment, including solar storms and meteoroid impacts.”