Two smoking barrels on the Moon

This image is an elevation map of the South Po...
Elevation map of the South Pole-Aitken basin on the Moon, from the NASA/SDIO probe Clementine mission. magenta and blue show the lowest elevation rising through a rainbow spectrum to red, the highest elevations

The South Pole and the farside of the Moon contain, at 2500 km across and 13 km deep, the largest impact structure in the Solar System: the South Pole-Aitken (SPA) basin. Being partly camouflaged by many later craters up to several 100 km across, typical of the lunar far side and the lunar highlands in general, the SPA basin formed early in the Moon’s cratering history, and is unlike the mare basins of the near side that are filled with basalt lavas. The light colour of the lunar highlands into which the SPA basin was excavated signifies that they are dominated by almost pure feldspar in the form of anorthosite rock. These anorthosites are prime evidence for the former melting of much if not all of the Moon at the time of its formation: low-density feldspar with a very high melting point could only have accumulated with the degree of purity of anorthosite if early-formed crystals floated to the top of the magma ocean.

Total magnetic field strength at the surface o...
Total magnetic field strength at the surface of the Moon from the NASA Lunar Prospector mission

The other feature of feldspars is that they are among the least magnetic of minerals, so it came as a surprise that the northern rim of the SPA basin is studded with positive magnetic anomalies (Wieczorek, M.A. et al. 2012. An impactor origin for lunar magnetic anomalies. Science, v. 335, p. 1212-1215). Lunar samples returned by the Apollo Programme are consistently lacking in all but the weakest remanent magnetism, suggesting that the Moon either never had a magnetic field or if it did the field was extremely weak. Even if it did once have a magnetic field, the anomaly patterns are small with high amplitude and reminiscent of a target hit by a shotgun blast. Similar anomalies are scattered on the near side.

The SPA basin is elliptical, suggesting that the projectile responsible for it struck at an oblique angle. The far=side magnetic anomalies cluster exactly where impact modelling would suggest for debris displaced by impact from a northward travelling body. The interpretation arrived at by Mark Wieczorek of the Parisian Institut de Physique du Globe and colleagues from MIT and Harvard University in the US is that the anomalies mark landing sites for large fragments of an easily magnetised,  iron-rich asteroid that excavated the basin. Moreover, the same impact might explain magnetic anomalies much further from the basin, on the lunar near side. The remaining mystery is how fragments of the impactor came to be magnetised. The impact would have ensured their being heated well above the temperature of the Curie point at which even the most magnetically susceptible materials lose their magnetisation. The most likely possibility is that the fragments attained their magnetised state at a time when the moon did have a core-generated magnetic field, albeit weak.

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