one of Iceland's fire fountain volcanoes

The moon used to have a volcanic temper

Contributed by
Sep 24, 2016, 5:37 PM EDT (Updated)

If you think the moon shines brightly now, you should have seen it on a clear night 4 billion years ago.

What has become a universal symbol for going to sleep once blazed with volcanoes that (at least in NASA’s video re-creation) make its solar-powered glow look like a night light. Those craters that may or may not appear as an eerie smiling face have even more sinister origins. Space geysers spewed so much wrath that the rush of lava burned ravines like Rima Prinz into the lunar surface and overflowed into lakes and oceans of liquid fire, such as Vera and Oceanus Procellarum. But why was our deceptively cool moon once so temperamental?

Backtracking several billion years, there was a planetary smackdown between Earth and a rogue celestial body the size of Mars that led to the moon’s violent birth. Minerals like silicon, oxygen, aluminum and iron — all elements found on our planet — are proof that it was once a piece of our planet’s flesh until something smashed into it. These elements also have skyrocketing boiling points. Such geological evidence points to the moon emerging from a bath of fire. When the epic collision happened, both Earth and the mystery planet were shattered and reassembled in flames.

lunar volcanic channel Rima Prinz

The moon was born when leftover asteroids chased each other around Earth until they crashed and merged. Earth’s satellite was a nascent fireball. Geysers of flame sprang from its volatile surface. Magma oozed through cracks in the unstable crust, shot into phoenix-feather plumes and pooled into what are now giant, ghostly craters.

Carbon monoxide was the culprit behind these lunar fireworks and firestorms. Spatters of magma containing these elements have been forever frozen in shards of volcanic glass scattered on its surface. Under a microscope, the chemical makeup of the glass reveals carbon-saturated magma. Atmospheric oxygen bubbled with the excess carbon, forming carbon monoxide that gurgled to the surface as pressure decreased. Flames spurted forth as the bubbles broke. NASA even sees the volcano which flooded Vera with lava as a primordial reflection of Hawaii and Iceland’s fire fountains, except magnified hundreds of times.  

The moon’s birth records have revealed its chemical DNA connection to Earth through phantom volcanoes and their explosive secrets. Future investigations could shed more light on the turbulent origins of our space rock satellite. For now, watch the explosive video put together from footage captured by the NASA Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera, and let your mind be blown.