Sunday, October 12, 2014

New evidence for young lunar volcanism

One of many newly-discovered young volcanic deposits on the Moon (4.330°N, 33.750°E), this example is near the crater Maskelyne, in south central Mare Tranquillitatis. Illustration from from "New evidence for young lunar volcanism," Mark Robinson, Oct. 12, 2014. LROC NAC observation M1123340138R, LRO orbit 17730, May 16, 2013; slew 3° from orbital nadir, incidence 66.55° resolution 1.04 meters from 102.5 km over 4.26°N, 33.97°E [NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University].
Mark Robinson
Principal Investigator
Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC)
Arizona State University

Many young volcanic deposits were recently identified in LROC NAC images. Their sharp nature and general lack of superposed impact craters greater than 20 meters in diameter indicate these deposits probably formed in the last 100 million years, perhaps even more recently than 50 million years ago. An amazing result!

A new paper, (Evidence for basaltic volcanism on the Moon within the past 100 million years, Nature Geoscience 7, 787-791; 2014) presents 70 topographic anomalies, informally called Irregular Mare Patches, or IMPs, most of these occurrences were previously undocumented. The IMPs are thought to be remnants of small basaltic eruptions that formed significantly after the commonly accepted end of lunar volcanism (1 to 1.5 billion years ago).

Locations of IMPs. Red circles indicate either a single IMP greater than 100 meters in diameter, or a cluster of smaller IMPs. The area extends from 28.0° N to 40.6° N latitude and 58.0 ° E to 50.3° E longitude, LROC WAC 643nm mosaic. IMP labels: Aristarchus (A), Gruithuisen E-M region (GEM), Hyginus (H), Ina (I), Mare Nubium (MN),  Mare Tranquillitatis (MT), Marius Hills (MH), Maskelyne (M), Sosigenes (S) [NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University].
Pursuing a Decades-old Puzzle

The best-known IMP, called Ina (or Ina-D), was originally spotted in Apollo 15 orbital photography, and was unlike anything else previously discovered on the lunar surface. Beginning with Apollo era investigations, Ina was interpreted as a collapsed caldera at the summit of a low-shield volcano. Previous interpretations of impact crater densities within and around Ina suggested that this enigmatic landform was much younger than the surrounding mare basalt unit in Lacus Felicitatis (Lake of Happiness).

Not only does the NAC provide excellent resolution, but after 5 years of operation has covered well over 75% of the surface. This combination led to the discovery of many new IMPs in locations across the nearside of the Moon. Ina is not simply a one-off oddity – but rather a signature of volcanic processes that actually occurred in multiple places across the nearside.

Close up of a small 464 meter wide section of the "IMP" familiarly known as Ina. This area is a great example of the difference between the rough and smooth units that make up the new family of IMP structures. The smooth unit is composed of mounds over the rougher units. The Sun is from the East, the black arrows show a Sun-facing cliff of one of the mounds. LROC NAC M175246029LR, LRO orbit 10960, November 6, 2011; 45.6° incidence, resolution 44 cm from 24.54 km over 18.91°N, 4.76°E [NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University].
New Discoveries

All of the lunar landforms identified as IMPs exhibit two distinct morphologies: smooth deposits, which are sometimes connected to the surrounding mare basalt, and uneven deposits (rough-looking) which usually end abruptly at the steep edges of the smooth deposit; it is likely that the smooth materials are covering portions of the rough material.

To estimate the age of IMPs the LROC team measured the sizes and numbers of impact craters on the smooth deposit surfaces (geologists use the crater size-frequency distribution (CSFD) as a metric for estimating the age of a surface). The resulting crater distributions from the three largest irregular mare patches imply ages younger than 100 million years. Indeed, the new crater counts confirmed that Ina is very young, perhaps as young as 33 million years.

IMP north of Aristarchus crater (25.044°N, 313.233°E). Compelling evidence of the youth of this feature and its apparent origination from active processes within the Moon. As a matter of stratigraphy, the phenomena that caused this occurred after the formation of Aristarchus crater, a late Copernican age crater itself superposed on some of the Moon's youngest basaltic volcanic plains. 650 meter-wide field of view from LROC NAC observation M168509312R, LRO orbit 9967, August 20, 2011; incidence 42.67° at 40 cm resolution from 25.59 km over 24.7°N, 313.21°E [NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University].
Another key set of observations came from digital topographic maps derived from NAC stereo pairs that enabled quantitative relief and slope measurements of six larger IMPs. Measurements of the smooth deposit relief compared to the underlying uneven deposit revealed that the thickness of the smooth deposits (on average 8 meters, with a range of 2-20 meters) is consistent with the previously established thickness of lunar basalt flows.

Topographic slopes were measured at the edges of the smooth deposits where they contact the uneven deposits. Slopes that exceed the angle of repose, which is 30-35°, are evidence of relatively young surface features, because over time impacts and moonquakes will smooth over steep cliffs. Slopes on the edges of many of the smooth deposits exceed the angle of repose, providing more evidence for very young surfaces.

Changing the Way We Think About the Moon

Not only are the IMPs striking landscapes, they also tell us something very important about the thermal evolution of the Moon. The nearside has extensive mare basalt flows covering much of its surface, however we know from analysis of Apollo samples and crater counts that the bulk of lunar volcanism occurred from 3.9 to 3.1 billion years ago, and shut-off sometime around 1 billion years ago. However the IMPs seemed to have formed significantly after the canonical cessation of lunar mare basalt volcanism indicating the interior of the Moon is perhaps hotter than previously thought.

The contrast between the smooth and rough units stands out in this oblique view of Ina. The floor of the depression is about 50 m below the surrounding plains and is about 2 km wide. LRO oblique mosaic M1108203502LR, LRO orbit 15596, November 22, 2012; 52.18° slew from orbital nadir, resolution 3.75 meters from 127.29 km over 18.77°N, 11.64°E [NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University].
Full-width reduction of LRO oblique mosaic M1108203502LR, showing the interesting contextual features, some related, others likely not, subject of decades of speculation [NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University].
The new study of IMPs extends our knowledge of the extent of these fascinating deposits as well as their young age. What does it all mean? The young, small-volume extrusions of mare basalt imply a thermal history of the Moon where volcanism did not end abruptly, but rather decreased gradually over time (and may not be done!). With these newly discovered young volcanic features, scientists must consider that the Moon has a bit more heat in it that previously thought, an important new constraint for future models of the Moon's thermal evolution. Perhaps the abundance of radioactive elements (which provide heat as they decay) is higher -- important knowledge when figuring out how the Moon formed and evolved over time.

A provocative side note to the new thermal constraints — perhaps the Apollo heat flow measurements were spot on? Astronauts buried thermometers in the regolith during the Apollo 15 and 17 missions. The temperatures recorded were a bit higher than models predicted. At the time, scientists proposed that perhaps the two landing sites were in areas with higher heat flow than the average Moon, or perhaps there was an instrumental effect. The discovery of IMPs and their young age is certainly consistent with the higher temperatures measured by the Apollo crews.

Apollo 15 cmdr. Dave Scott working at the west Heat Flow hole (with St. George crater in the background). The drill is sitting on the ground next to the hole. Increased understanding of IMP phenomena increases the likelihood readings taken using the Apollo Heat Flow Experiments (HFE) during the Apollo 15 and 17 surface expeditions were not, afterall, anomalous. Apollo 15 EVA-2 AS15-92-12408 [NASA/JSC].
The IMPs are a fascinating part of the story of lunar volcanism over time, and now they must be considered high priority targets for future exploration. A sample return mission from one of these enigmatic deposits would tell us so much about the Moon as a whole. When did these lavas erupt? Is their chemistry different than the basalts returned by the Apollo astronauts? Is it likely that volcanic eruptions may occur at some point in the future?  A highly accurate age date for the IMPs would also serve as a much needed calibration point for the lunar cratering chronology; a crucial improvement not only for lunar studies but also for Mars and Mercury investigations.

Closer look at the IMP at Rimae Sosigenes - image follows below - Demonstrations Supplementary to "Evidence for basaltic volcanism on the Moon within the past 100 million years," Nature Geoscience 7, 787-791; 2014

Fig. 7 (top) Profile across a contact between smooth and uneven deposits, southeast feature. The relief of the smooth deposit is measured as the difference in elevation between the average flat surface of the smooth deposit (-1504 meters below global mean elevation; Sosigenes Graben NAC-DTM) and the base of the uneven deposit at the contact (-1514 meters). For this particular profile the smooth deposit is 10 meters thick. Note the lobate margin of the smooth deposit at the contact.

Fig. 5 (bottom) Craters on the smooth deposit of the Sosigenes IMP. The red circles are impact craters superposed on the smooth deposit of the Sosigenes IMP, delineated by the blue line; field of view roughly 5 km [NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University].
Spectacular oblique mosaic of the Sosigenes graben with it's large collapse pit, 2800 meters long and 300 meters deep, and floored with an IMP.  LROC NAC oblique observation M1108117962LR, LRO orbit 15584, November 21, 2012; 70.37° incidence, spacecraft and camera slew 55° resolution 2.5 meters from 114.87 km over 8.63°N, 24.9°E [NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University].
View full-window: Spectacular oblique NAC mosaic of the Sosignes graben with a large collapse pit (2800 meters wide, left-to-right; 300 meters deep) floored with an IMP.

Wider field of view from a spectacular oblique LROC NAC mosaic M152750200LR, LRO orbit 15584, November 21, 2012; 70.37° incidence, spacecraft and camera slew 55° resolution 2.5 meters from 114.87 km over 8.63°N, 24.9°E [NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University].
Inspect a variety IMPs using the LROC Quickmap: Cauchy-5, Nubium, GEM-30, Aristarchus North

Related Posts:
Inside Rima Hyginus (June 12, 2012)
Ina of the Meniscus Hollows (March 21, 2012)
Spectral properties of Ina (February 7, 2011)

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