Puffing up the Moon

Since George Bush announced that US manned planetary missions are back on the agenda, albeit in an uncertain future for NASA, barely a month goes by without some kind of scientific justification for a return to the ‘good old days’. The latest as regards future lunar missions was in the 1 April 2006 of New Scientist, as a special report ‘It’s time to go back’.  It seems there are unique opportunities that the Moon presents for a range of scientific work (Chandler, D.L. 2006. The ultimate lab. New Scientist,1 April 2006 issue, p. 33-37). The lunar far side, being shielded from radio noise from Earth, is well suited to deploying an array of miniature radio telescopes. Half a dozen 1 m dishes spread over 20 km could simulate an enormous dish. The lack of an atmosphere suggests ideal stable conditions for optical telescopes, although being on a body with a large gravitational attraction would expose instruments to meteor flux. The lunar south pole is said to look good for science. For a start, there is a 5 km peak always lit by the Sun for continuous solar power, as well as data relay back to Earth. Nearby is the deep Shackleton crater that is never lit, and is immensely cold; ideal for an infrared telescope, and maybe harbouring water ice to support a manned lunar base.

The Apollo missions returned sufficient rock and soil samples to whet planetary scientists’ appetites.  They answered a lot of questions, and did revolutionise issues of planetary origins, evolution and bombardment history, yet they raised other interesting questions. Answering geological questions from the rocks of other worlds depends a great deal on luck, and the few small sites visited by the Apollo astronauts undoubtedly left out a great deal. What is needed, it seems is a ‘Serendipity Base’. The best one would be a deep crater with steep, rocky sides, and there is one that seems just right. The Aitken basin is 12 km deep and exposes a layered structure in its walls.

Perhaps the greatest attraction is the fact that anything that falls on the Moon remains in its pristine state for all time, provided it is not buried by accumulated meteoritic dust and impact ejecta. The Moon could be a really happy hunting ground for meteorite specialists, although finding interesting ones on the dull, grey surface might pose problems – you can tell a meteorite on Earth, if you search ice sheets, deserts and saline flats, by their contrast with the background.  There is a very odd notion, however, that well-preserved ejecta from impacts on the Earth and other planets that found their way to the lunar surface might hold the keys to the origin of life (Ward, P. 2006. House of flying fossils. New Scientist, 1 April 2006 issue, p. 38-41). The reasoning goes like this: like the Moon, all planets in the Solar System have for 4.55 Ga been whacked by impacts, which must have flung debris outside their gravitational attraction. Having a strong gravitational field itself, the Moon must have swept up a sizeable representative sample of all such debris hurtling around the Solar System.  Some of the biggest impacts – again as revealed by the lunar surface – were early in planetary evolution. Debris from them would therefore be samples of materials before they had been affected by later geological processes on their parent planets. Analyses of particles in the Apollo samples indicate that perhaps 3 kg of the third of a tonne of material is non-lunar, of which a few grams might be from Earth.

Terrestrial geology effectively stops once we go back to about 4 Ga, besides which very old rocks on Earth have been subject to all manner of chemical, erosive, tectonic and metamorphic influences. That is the reason why incontrovertible fossils and geochemical evidence for life have yet to be found before 3 Ga at the earliest. There are whiffs of earlier life, which people choose to believe or otherwise, but the potential for dispute fuels continual debate. But escaped ejecta from Hadean impacts on the Earth wouldn’t have been altered so much. They could be dated, and thereby tell geoscientists about the earliest crust, now vanished apart from a few minute grains of pre-4 Ga zircons. Most attractive is the possibility that they could harbour well-preserved organic materials that are traces of the very earliest life forms or their complex precursor chemicals. But would they survive the impacts that produced them? Although impacts from objects as small as 100 m could fling debris beyond the Earth’s pull without heating it too much, Hadean impacts would have had awesome energy because the colliders were huge, as witness the mare basins on the Moon that are over 100 km across. Much of the debris from those lunar big hits is in the form of once melted glasses, and the holes that they left filled with magma generated by the huge energies involved. Some meteorites do preserve their original magnetization, which suggests they never reached temperatures above the Curie points of the minerals responsible for it. Ward cites this evidence in support of once living materials being able to survive in ancient terrestrial ejecta that almost certainly will lie on the lunar surface. But he uses it to say that meteorite internal temperatures must have stayed below 100°C: the Curie point for common magnetic minerals is around 600°C. Given the date of publication, might we be reading of a pudding with too much egg? Whatever, the origin, if not the meaning of life exerts more pull on science purse strings than the prospect of gold nuggets hiding in shadowed craters…

Yet another weird world

Saturn is well-endowed with moons: 35 with names and a whole lot of moonlets.  The Saturnian System is astonishing in its diversity, and part of the Cassini probe’s mission is to examine in detail as many moons as possible– 20 flown by in the last year. Enceladus is by no means the largest (504 km in diameter), yet it is very odd indeed. One of its singular features is its ability to jet vast amounts of water from warm spots, and the fact that it seems to snow there.  The 10 March 2006 issue of Science magazine devotes 40 pages to articles on the oddities of Enceladus. To jet water ice and vapour to more than twice its diameter – in fact to drench much of the planetary system and replenish parts of the famed ring system – there must be a powerful heat source.  Just what that is has yet to be worked out: it could be bound up with internal radioactive decay or with vast tidal sources from Saturn itself, and maybe something else entirely. Its south pole is curiously its most active part, with sufficient heat energy beneath to create a major positive anomaly in long-wave infrared images. This is where much of Enceladus’s resurfacing by snow takes place. Saturn’s tidal forces have rucked up the surface to create hilly ridges, perhaps assisted by a kind of icy volcanism. Tidal or internal forces have also opened up great cracks in the surface, which false-colour images that use UV, green and short-wave infrared reveal to be compositionally different from the water-ice bulk of the surface. That may have resulted from hydrocarbon deposits leaking from deeper layers. It is the moon’s interior that causes most excitement.  In order for it to spray off watery jets, there must be a deep source of liquid water, either a liquid shell on which an ice ‘lithosphere’ floats or produced as internal plumes by melting at an interface with a rocky core.  That there are hydrocarbons suggests that some of the watery solids include gas-hydrates (ices that incorporate both water and gases).

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