A glimpse of the deep Moon

Charting the variation in gravitational potential across a planet provides a measure of the distribution of mass beneath its surface. That depends on both the planet’s actual shape and on internal variations in rock density. The Earth’s gravity has been mapped with varying degrees of precision, depending on sample spacing, by surface measurements using gravimeters. Doing gravity surveys from space cannot be so direct, however. One ingenious approach for the gravitational field over the oceans is to measure the mean height of the ocean surface using radar beams from a satellite. Since this is affected by variations in the gravitational field, partly due to bathymetry and partly because of varying density beneath the ocean floor, removing the calculable bathymetric effect leaves a gravitational signal from the underling lithosphere and deeper mantle. The first satellite to illuminate the Earth with radar microwaves, Seasat, gradually built up such a gravitational map of the deep Earth over a period of 105 days in 1978, which was followed up by other satellites such as the ERS series and Topex-Poseidon.

GRAIL lunar probes
The GRAIL satellites in lunar orbit (credit: Wikipedia)

It is not so easy to map gravity precisely above a solid planetary surface, but through the GRACE experiment this can be done by measuring very precisely the distance between a pair of satellites that follow the same orbit. As the gravitational field changes so too does the separation between the tandem of satellites; an increase in gravity pulls the satellites closer together and vive versa. GRACE has provided some fascinating data, such as estimates of the withdrawal of groundwater from large sedimentary basins and shrinkage of ice caps. However, GRACE is limited in its resolution of gravitational anomalies by the fact that Earth has an atmosphere above which such tandems must be parked in orbit to avoid burning up. The higher the orbit, the more degraded is the resolution. This effect is much less for Mars and non-existent for the Moon.

Gravity field of the moon as measured by NASA's GRAIL mission. The far side of the moon is at the centre, whereas the nearside (as viewed from Earth) is at either side. (credit: NASA/ARC/MIT)
Gravity field of the moon as measured by NASA’s GRAIL mission. The far side of the moon is at the centre, whereas the nearside (as viewed from Earth) is at either side. (credit: NASA/ARC/MIT)

A sister experiment to GRACE has been orbiting the Moon since September 2011: the Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL). First the tandem orbited at 55 km, then 22 and for a brief period 11 km, before running out of thruster fuel on 17 December 2012 and crashing into the lunar surface. Results from the highest orbit resolve lunar gravity to 13 km cells, recently reported on-line in three papers (Zuber, M.T. and 16 others 2012. Gravity field of the Moon from the Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) Mission. Science, doi 10.1126/science.1231507; Wieczorek, M.A. and 15 others 2012. The crust of the Moon as seen by GRAIL. Science, doi 10.1126/science.1231530; Andrews-Hanna, J.C. and 18 others 2012. Ancient igneous intrusions and early expansion of the Moon revealed by GRAIL gravity gradiometry. Science, doi 10.1126/science.1231753). From crater gravitational signatures due to variations in surface topography it seems that the early bombardment of the lunar surface far exceeded previous assumptions. Impact effects dominate the GRAIL data at this resolution, but 2% of the information relates to structures hidden at depth.

500 km linear anomaly in the Moon's far-side  gravitational field. (credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/CSM)
500 km linear anomaly in the Moon’s far-side gravitational field. (credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/CSM)

There are linear gravity anomalies extending over hundreds of kilometres, which may be huge igneous intrusions in the form of dykes; perhaps reflections of early influences of early extensional tectonics in the Moons lithosphere. Estimates point to this having been due to an up to 5 km increase in the lunar radius, probably as a result of thermal changes. The dominant feature of the lunar surface is not the near-side flat basaltic maria, visually prominent as they are, but the far more rugged lunar highlands which stand far higher because of the lower density of their constituent feldspar-rich anorthosites. GRAIL permitted a bulk estimate of the density of highland crust that turned out to be substantially lower, at 2550 kg m-3 – compared with 2600-2700 for granite and 2800-3000 for basalt – than originally estimated from samples returned by the Apollo mission. This forces a reassessment of the thickness of highland crust from 50-60 km to between 34 and 43 km, with a near-surface layer that has a porosity of around 12%, probably resulting from its awful battering. A thinner highland crust than previously assumed presents a bulk geochemical picture that need not be more enriched in ‘refractory’  elements, such as aluminium and calcium, than is the Earth.

Such unanticipated results from the low-resolution mode of the GRAIL experiment have its science team almost salivating at prospects from the sharper ‘pictures’ that will arise from the lower altitude orbits.