According to the researchers, the fine dust at the bottom of the Moon’s craters is actually ejected materials forced up from below the Moon’s surface during meteor impacts. When comparing the metal content at the bottom of larger and deeper craters to that of the smaller and shallower ones, the team found higher metal concentrations in the deeper craters.
What does a change in recorded metal presence in the subsurface have to do with our understanding of the Moon? The traditional hypothesis is that approximately 4.5 billion years ago there was a collision between Earth and a Mars-sized proto-planet (named Theia). Most scientists believe that that collision shot a large portion of Earth’s metal-poor upper crust into orbit, eventually forming the Moon.
One puzzling aspect of this theory of the Moon’s formation, has been that the Moon has a higher concentration of iron oxides than the Earth–a fact well-known to scientists. This particular research contributes to the field in that it provides insights about a section of the moon that has not been frequently studied and posits that there may exist an even higher concentration of metal deeper below the surface. It is possible, say the researchers that the discrepancy between the amount of iron on the Earth’s crust and the Moon could be even greater than scientists thought, which pulls into question the current understanding of how the Moon was formed.
The fact that our Moon could be richer in metals than the Earth challenges the notion that it was portions of Earth’s mantle and crust that were shot into orbit. A greater concentration of metal deposits may mean that other hypotheses about the Moon’s formation must be explored. It may be possible that the collision with Theia was more devastating to our early Earth, with much deeper sections being launched into orbit, or that the collision could have occurred when Earth was still young and covered by a magma ocean. Alternatively, more metal could hint at a complicated cool-down of an early molten Moon surface, as suggested by several scientists.
According to Heggy, “By improving our understanding of how much metal the Moon’s subsurface actually has, scientists can constrain the ambiguities about how it has formed, how it is evolving and how it is contributing to maintaining habitability on Earth.” He further added, “Our solar system alone has over 200 moons – understanding the crucial role these moons play in the formation and evolution of the planets they orbit can give us deeper insights into how and where life conditions outside Earth might form and what it might look like.”
Wes Patterson, of Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory, principal investigator for Mini-RF and a co-author of the study, added, “The LRO mission and its radar imager Mini-RF are continuing to surprise us with new insights into the origins and complexity of our nearest neighbor.”
The team plans to continue carrying out additional radar observations of more crater floors with the Mini-RF experiment to verify the initial findings of the published investigation
This research project was funded through the University of Southern California under NASA award NNX15AV76G.
University of Southern California
Publication: Bulk composition of regolith fines on lunar crater floors: Initial investigation by LRO/Mini-RF E. Heggy, E.M. Palmer, T.W. Thompson, B.J. Thomson, G.W. Patterson.. Earth and Planetary Science Letters, 2020; 541: 116274 DOI: 10.1016/j.epsl.2020.116274
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