Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Moon's antipodal magnetism mystery

A new study of areas on the Moon opposite (at the antipodes) of the Moon's youngest basins goes beyond long-studied crustal magnetic anomalies and the albedo "swirls" at those opposite coordinates to demonstrate "highly modified terrain" at these opposing points. Animation from preliminary lunar crust thickness maps derived from GRAIL (2012) data by the Science Visualization Studio. [NASA/GSFC].
Paul D. Spudis
The Once and Future Moon
Smithsonian Air & Space

Although the Moon has no global magnetic field like the Earth, small areas on its surface are magnetized.  These fields are not systematically distributed and in general are very weak.  In trying to explain their mysterious presence and origin, several ideas have been advanced.

Rocks typically acquire magnetism (called remnant magnetism) by cooling in the presence of a magnetic field.  At temperatures greater than about 570° C (the so-called Curie point), a rock cannot retain a magnetic signature.  But if it cools below the Curie point, it assumes an induced magnetic field oriented in the same direction as the field in which it cooled.  Unfortunately, on the Moon most rocks have been dislodged from their original orientations by impact processes, so we do not know whether a given rock cooled in the presence of a global (presumably uniform strength and direction) or local (randomized) magnetic field.

We knew the Moon had no global magnetic field before the Apollo crews landed, so it was a bit surprising to learn that some of the returned lunar rocks are strongly magnetized.  Because these rocks are all very old (usually much older than 3 billion years), it was thought that they recorded an ancient epoch when the Moon might have had a global magnetic field, now vanished for some reason.

This finding from the lunar samples was complemented by measurements from orbit that show small areas (10s to 100s of kilometers across) of the surface to be magnetized.  These areas occur all over the Moon and are not associated exclusively with either the dark volcanic maria or the bright highlands crust.  However, they do tend to have two peculiar properties.  First, we find strange “grooved” terrain associated with some of the strongest magnetic anomalies.  This terrain is unlike any other lunar landform – it consists of ridges and valleys that cover the walls and sides of craters and mountains.  Second, these magnetic anomalies tend to occur at the antipodes of (180° away on the opposite side of the globe from) the largest and youngest lunar multi-ring impact basins.  These are curious properties indeed.  What might it mean?

For years, many have pondered and worked on this dilemma.  One idea was developed that perhaps these magnetic anomalies are formed during basin impact.  It was proposed that seismic shaking from these enormous impacts created the grooved terrain and induced fractures in the crust at the antipode, into which hot volcanic magma was injected.  After cooling these dikes assumed remnant magnetism from a global dipole field.  Yet another idea contends that the concentration of magnetized material is a result of antipodal convergence of basin ejecta, which arrived hot from basin formation, collected at the antipode and cooled through the Curie point there.  This last model has the advantage that it might also explain the presence of the grooved terrain, which might have formed by the arrival of basin ejecta on the surface from impacts coming from all directions simultaneously.

Though islands of crustal magnetism are strongly associated with points diametrically opposite from basin forming impacts, these magnetic anomalies are also often offset from those antipodal points. Above, the ring of the Moon's youngest basin Schrödinger, in the far lunar south, is mirrored on the area on the direct opposite side of the Moon in the far lunar north. The absolute antipode is in the vicinity of Anaximenes H. The crustal magnetism mapped using Lunar Prospector data seems at its highest near Catena Sylvester. Terrain cited as greatly disrupted seismically is further still from the Schrödinger antipode, at craters Froelich and Lovelace, just beyond this field of view, at upper right [NASA/GSFC/ASU].
My colleague Lon Hood from the University of Arizona has been studying magnetic anomalies for many years and is an advocate of the last model described above.  Hood was studying some previously ignored, smaller magnetic anomalies found around the Moon that had no explanation. He asked me about the geological setting of one particular magnetic anomaly on the Moon that had yet to be described in detail.  This one occurs in highlands near the north pole of the Moon and had not been previously studied in detail.

I have been something of a skeptic for many years about the basin/antipode relation for magnetic anomalies.  Part of the reason for my position is the problem of Reiner Gamma, which is a bright patch on the lunar surface that has one of the highest magnetic field strengths on the Moon.  The problem is that Reiner Gamma is nowhere near the antipode of any basin and shows no evidence for any grooved terrain.  So I thought that this was the exception that disproves the rule.
“Will your grace command me any service to the world's end?  I will go on the slightest errand now, to the Antipodes that you can devise to send me on…”
- Much Ado About Nothing, (Act II, scene 2)

Nonetheless, I was intrigued by Hood’s finding and decided to examine the area.  To my astonishment, I found wall textures very similar to the famous grooved terrain in the walls of the craters Lovelace and Froelich (not exactly coincident with the anomaly, but very close).  I can see no obvious reason for such terrain development; it appears to be highly restricted in its distribution and is not a fresh feature.  Judging from its degraded appearance, it is rather old.

So, is there a basin antipodal to Lovelace and Froelich?  Indeed there is – the fabulous Schrödinger basin, one of the smaller lunar basins at 325 km diameter, located near the south pole of the Moon.  Before our study, I probably would have thought that Schrödinger was too small to create any global-scale effects, but we don’t fully understand the effects of impact with increasing size and there is no good alternative explanation for the wall textures of these two craters.  The presence of a significant magnetic anomaly nearby is unquestionable.

Froelich (l) and Lovelace (r), adjacent to Catena Sylvester (above map) and the region antipodal to Schrödinger basin - showing grooved terrain in walls (green arrows).
From Hood, et al (2013). Along with its spectacular lunar swirls and complex crustal magnetism, grooved terrain along the walls surrounding Mare Ingenii is also a easily identified characteristic of the region adjacent to the antipodes of Mare Imbrium. Less well-known, perhaps, is the region antipodal to Mare Serenitatis, along the north rim of the more ancient South Pole-Aitken basin [NASA/GSFC/ASU].
So have I changed my mind on the origin of lunar magnetic anomalies?  Possibly.  One of the most convincing ways to get a scientist to change his mind is to bludgeon him with an irrefutable fact that contradicts his worldview.  I now realize the Reiner Gamma problem does not “disprove” the basin antipode model – it merely indicates that it may be incomplete.  That distinction is subtle but significant.  In science, we always look for “rules,” generalities that help us organize observations and suggest possible explanations.  However, these rules sometimes have exceptions and we must carefully distinguish which actually have the force of a rule versus those that merely indicate some general tendencies.

To me, this discovery was surprising.  The new finding still does not fully address exactly how these magnetic anomalies are formed at the antipodes, but the concept that magnetic anomalies and basin-forming impacts are intimately associated has been strengthened and extended.  We will continue to work on this vexing problem.

Originally published June 19, 2013 at his Smithsonian Air & Space blog The Once and Future Moon, Dr. Spudis is a senior staff scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute. The opinions expressed are those of the author but are better informed than average.

Related Posts:
Bubble, Bubble – Swirl and Trouble (July 19, 2012)
Boulder 668 at Descartes C (July 16, 2012)
LROC: The Swirls of Mare Ingenii (June 22, 2012)
Remnant magnetism hints at once-active lunar core (January 27, 2012)
Grand lunar swirls yielding to LRO Mini-RF (October 4, 2010)
Another look at Reiner Gamma (June 30, 2010)
LOLA: Goddard (June 26, 2010)
Depths of Mare Ingenii (June 16, 2010)
LROC: Ingenii Swirls at Constellation Region of Interest (May 26, 2010)
Local topography and Reiner Gamma (May 22, 2010)
Lunar swirl phenomena from LRO (May 17, 2010)
The still-mysterious Descartes formation (May 11, 2010)
Dust transport and its importance in the origin of lunar swirls (February 21, 2010)
The Heart of Reiner Gamma (November 17, 2009)
Moon’s mini-magnetospheres are old news (November 16, 2009)
MIT claim of solving ‘lunar mystery’ unfounded (January 15, 2009)


Anonymous said...

Do the magnetic anomalies and/or swirls correspond to known mascons?

Joel Raupe said...

Not directly, no. Or, put better, "indirectly," and "in some cases."

For example, perhaps the most conspicuous MASCON is within the transitory crater boundary of Mare Imbrium. And antipodal of Imbrium are the equally conspicuous crustal magnetic fields and swirls at Mare Ingenii.