the moon really is a harsh mistress

September 20, 2009

One would think that distant, frozen places like Triton or Pluto would have the coldest recorded temperatures in the entire solar system. And one would be wrong. Make no mistake though, these icy worlds aren’t exactly a balmy destination. The most bone chilling weather on our planet can kill an unprotected human in just a few minutes with a temperature of -128°F. Triton is more than three times colder than that at -391°F which would freeze your body as hard as steel within seconds. Compared to that, Pluto isn’t much worse. In fact, it’s about one degree warmer than the coldest place in our solar system, about 238,900 miles away. On the Moon.

earth and the moon

According to the latest data from NASA’s new LRO probe, temperatures in lunar craters in places that can be very literally described by the expression “where the Sun doesn’t shine,” fall to a jaw-dropping -397°F which is uncomfortably close to absolute zero, or -459°F. It’s meaningless to talk about what would happen to a human body in this kind of cold since the very molecules holding it together would be on the verge of freezing in place. And when your molecular structure begins to freeze over, it’s a good sign that the thermostat is turned way too low. Technically speaking, it’s thought that attaining absolute zero in a natural system is highly unlikely due to various quantum phenomena and that laws of thermodynamics. (So far the coldest known temperature in the universe is estimated to be just two degrees warmer than the theoretical threshold of absolute zero.) But nevertheless, this may be about as cold as we can expect things to get around a G type star in its prime.

Now, you may be wondering how in the name of all that makes logical sense could we be flirting with -400°F temperatures just 93 million miles from the Sun where it’s nice and warm enough for liquid water to exist in abundance. Well, remember when I mentioned that there are places on the Moon where the Sun really never shines? These temperatures were recorded in craters that were actually embedded in bigger craters facing away from all sunlight. In this Russian doll-like arrangement of craters, the environment gets colder as time goes on, possibly trapping elements like water ice in the deep recesses of these dark craters and freezing them to the consistency of some metals. I suppose this just goes to show how much we still have left to learn about our nearest cosmic neighbors.

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  • ColonelFazackerley

    I would hazard a guess that if we surveyed some other bodies in the solar system with the same thoroughness, we would probably find even lower temperatures. What do you think?

  • Anything is possible, ColonelFazackerley. There is so much to discover and explore, never know what we might find. :)

  • Greg Fish


    It might be a possibility but we should note that we’re talking about very deep recesses of craters on the side of tidally locked body which never gets any light or warmth. We’d have to look at Kupier Belt objects if we want to find colder temps because other planets and most their moons do get exposure to solar radiation and tidal friction when they gravitationally interact with other objects in their systems.

  • Stephen Waterstram

    We’ve been getting some pretty nasty weather down here on Earth in the last decade, could it be possible that the moon is getting too far for comfort? Get back to me