Mysterious mass beneath lunar surface altering Moon's gravity

Mindy Sparks
June 12, 2019

"Imagine taking a pile of metal five times larger than the Big Island of Hawaii and burying it underground", said James with Baylor University.

For more information on this subject, have a peek at the research paper "Deep Structure of the Lunar South Pole‐Aitken Basin".

Whatever the mass is, the team believes it can explain some of the features of the South Pole-Aitken basin-specifically that the central depression of the crater is being weighed down by this mass, rather than being caused by the contraction of the "melt sheet"-found where impacts take place". Deep below the moon's South Pole-Aitken basin (the largest preserved impact crater anywhere in the solar system), researchers have detected a gargantuan "anomaly" of heavy metal lodged in the mantle that is apparently altering the moon's gravitational field.

Researchers from Baylor University in Texas used data from NASA's Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) and Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) missions to develop this new hypothesis on the origins of the basin. The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has spent almost 10 years at work and has made billions of measurements of the precise height of the moon's surface. Despite its size, it can not be seen from Earth because it is on the far side of the Moon.

"When we combined that with lunar topography data from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, we discovered the unexpectedly large amount of mass hundreds of miles underneath the South Pole-Aitken basin", he said.

"That is roughly how much unexpected mass we detected".

The simulations suggest that the material could be from the iron-nickel core of an asteroid, which, if dispersed into the upper mantle, could be weighing down the basin as seen in the spacecraft data. (It's also where China landed its Chang'e 4 lunar rover in January.) Publishing in Geophysical Research Letters, the Baylor scientists have two theories for the origin of the huge subterranean blob. The crater is several kilometres deep but can not be seen from Earth because it is located in the far side of the Moon, which is permanently turned away from Earth for astronomers and telescopes to study.

However, we won't know for sure whether this is the case or not until we actually put some boots (or wheels) on the Moon to study the unknown mass in situ. This magma ocean, which is thought to have existed 70 million years after the solar system was formed, gradually crystallized to the solid, grainy rock that resembles the Moon today over the next 200 million years.

The typography of the Moon anywhere around the South Pole-Aitken basin is particularly noticeable as charted by the two lunar missions.

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