Signs of lunar tectonics

Large features on the near side of the Moon give us the illusion of the Man-in-the-Moon gazing down benevolently once a month. The lightest parts are the ancient lunar highlands made from feldspar-rich anorthosite, hence their high albedo. The dark components, originally thought to be seas or maria, are now known to be large areas of flood basalt formed about half a billion years after the Moon’s origin. Some show signs of a circular structure and have been assigned to the magmatic aftermath of truly gigantic impacts during the 4.1-3.8 Ga Late Heavy Bombardment. The largest mare feature, with a diameter of 3200 km, is Oceanus Procellarum, which has a more irregular shape, though it envelopes some smaller maria with partially circular outlines.

Full Moon view from earth In Belgium (Hamois)....
Full Moon viewed from Earth. Oceanus Procellarum is the large, irregular dark feature at left. (credit: Wikipedia)

A key line of investigation to improve knowledge of the lunar maria is the structure of the Moon’s gravitational field above them. Obviously, this can only be achieved by an orbiting experiment, and in early 2012 NASA launched one to provide detailed gravitational information: the Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) whose early results were summarised by EPN in December 2012. GRAIL used two satellites orbiting in a tandem configuration similar to the US-German Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) launched in 2002 to measure variations over time in the Earth’s gravity field. The Grail orbiters flew in a low orbit and eventually crashed into the Moon in December 2012, after producing lots of data whose processing continues.

The latest finding from GRAIL concerns the gravity structure of the Procellarum region (Andrews-Hanna, J.C. and 13 others 2014. Structure and evolution of the lunar Procellarum region as revealed by GRAIL gravity data. Nature, v. 514, p. 68-71) have yielded a major surprise. Instead of a system of anomalies combining circular arcs, as might be expected from a product of major impacts, the basaltic basin has a border made up of many linear segments that define an unusually angular structure.

The topography and gravity structure of the Moon. Oceanus Procellarum is roughly at the centre. Note: the images cover both near- and far side of the Moon. (credit: Andrews-Hanna et al 2014)
The topography and gravity structure of the Moon. Oceanus Procellarum is roughly at the centre. Note: the images cover both near- and far side of the Moon. (credit: Andrews-Hanna et al 2014)

The features only become apparent from the gravity data after they have been converted to the first derivative of the Bouguer anomaly (its gradient). Interpreting the features has to explain the angularity, which looks far more like an outcome of tectonics than bombardments. The features have been explained as rift structures through which basaltic magma oozed to the surface, perhaps feeding the vast outpourings of mare basalts, unusually rich in potassium (K), rare-earth elements (REE) and phosphorus (P) know as KREEP basalts. The Procellarum polygonal structure encompasses those parts of the lunar surface that are richest in the radioactive isotopes of potassium, thorium and uranium (measured from orbit by a gamma-ray spectrometer) – thorium concentration is shown in the figure.

Tectonics there may be on the Moon, but the authors are not suggesting plate tectonics but rather structures formed as a huge mass of radioactively heated lunar lithosphere cooled down at a faster rate than the rest of the outer Moon. Nor are they casting doubt on the Late Heavy Bombardment, for there is no escaping the presence of both topographic and gravity-defined circular features, just that the biggest expanse of basaltic surface on the Moon may have erupted for other reasons than a huge impact.

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.