Moon’s Electric Secret Exposed: Chang’e-6 Detects Negative Ions – OpEd


In just a little over 48 hours, China’s Chang’e-6 mission landed on the far side of the Moon, collected samples and successfully launched back into space. This was an amazing achievement, as it marked the first time that samples were collected from the side of the Moon that always faces away from Earth. During its short stay, the lander also delivered several scientific instruments to the lunar surface, including the European Space Agency’s (ESA’s) Negative Ions at the Lunar Surface (NILS) device.

This device wasted no time and quickly started working, immediately detecting negative ions caused by the solar wind hitting the Moon’s surface. Neil Melville, the ESA’s technical officer for the experiment, said in a statement that this was the ESA’s first mission on the surface of the Moon. He added that it marked a path-breaking scientific achievement and was their first lunar collaboration with China. The amount and quality of data the ESA managed to gather was, reportedly, beyond expectations.

Maiden of Ions

These negative ions form when charged particles from the Sun, known as the solar wind, strike the Moon’s surface. These collisions knock electrons out of atoms and molecules on the lunar surface. Some of these free electrons then attach to neutral atoms or molecules, giving them a negative charge and forming negative ions.

Earth’s magnetic field prevents these particles from hitting the ground at all. However, because the Moon lacks a magnetic field, its surface is highly exposed to these charged particles. Unlike positive particles, these negative particles do not return to orbit, so scientists must study them directly on the Moon’s surface.

Fortunately, the mission succeeded and sent back valuable data. These observations could significantly impact our understanding of other places in our solar system that also lack a magnetic field. These Moon observations will help us understand its surface environment and study negative ions on other airless bodies in the solar system—everything from planets and asteroids to other moons—says Martin Wieser, principal investigator for NILS.

Focusing on the study of negative ions on the Moon offers several specific benefits to Earth people…

1.      Atmospheric Science

Understanding the behaviour and formation of negative ions on the Moon can provide insights into similar processes in Earth’s upper atmosphere. This can improve models of atmospheric chemistry and help us predict weather and climate changes

2.      Space Weather Prediction

Negative ions play a role in space weather phenomena. By studying them on the Moon, scientists can better understand how solar radiation and cosmic rays interact with airless bodies, which helps predict and mitigate effects of space weather on Earth’s satellites and communication systems

3.      Technological Applications

Knowledge gained from studying lunar negative ions can lead to advancements in ion-based technologies, such as ion propulsion systems for spacecraft, or new materials with unique electrical properties

4.      Radiation Protection

Research in how negative ions form and behave in the lunar environment can contribute to better radiation shielding techniques for both space missions and applications on Earth, such as protecting electronics and human health from radiation exposure

5.      Environmental Monitoring

Techniques developed to detect and analyse negative ions on the Moon could be adapted for monitoring pollution and air quality on Earth. Negative ions are often associated with air purification. So, this research may lead to improved environmental monitoring and control technologies

6.      Fundamental Science

Studying negative ions in a different environment helps validate, and refine, fundamental physical theories. This can lead to broad scientific advancements that indirectly benefit various technological fields on Earth

By focusing on negative ions, researchers can uncover new scientific principles and technological innovations that enhance our understanding of both our own planet and the broader universe.

Girish Linganna

Girish Linganna is a Defence, Aerospace & Political Analyst based in Bengaluru. He is also Director of ADD Engineering Components, India, Pvt. Ltd, a subsidiary of ADD Engineering GmbH, Germany. You can reach him at: [email protected]

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