Lunar gravity and the Orientale Basin

Mapping the Earth’s gravitational field once involved painstaking use of highly sensitive gravimeters at points on the surface, then interpolating values in the spaces between. How revealing maps produced in this way are depends on the spacing of the field sites, and that is still highly variable because of accessibility and how much money is available to carry out such a task in different areas. Space-borne methods have been around for decades.  One uses radar measurement of sea-surface height, which depends on the underlying gravitational field. The other deploys two satellites in tandem orbits (the US-German Aerospace Centre Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment – GRACE), the distance between them – measureable using radar –  varying along each orbit according to variations in the Earth’s gravity. Respectively, these methods have produced gravity maps of the ocean floor and estimates melting rates of ice caps and the amount of groundwater extraction from sedimentary basins. The problem with GRACE is that satellites need to avoid the Earth’s atmosphere by using orbits hundreds of kilometres above the surface, otherwise drag soon brings them down. So the resolution of the gravity maps that it produces is too coarse (about 270 km) for most useful applications. If a world has no atmosphere, however, there is no such limit on orbital altitude, other than surface topography. A similar tandem-system to GRACE has been orbiting the Moon at 55 km since 2011. The Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) mission has produced full coverage of lunar gravity at a resolution of 20 km. In a later phase of operation, GRAIL has been skimming the tops of the highest mountains on the Moon at an average altitude of 6 km; close enough to give a resolution of between 3 and 5 km.

Lunar Orbiter 4 image of the Mare Orientale ba...

The Mare Orientale basin on the Moon. (credit: Wikipedia)

This capacity has given a completely new take on lunar near-surface structure, about as good as that provided by conventional gravity mapping for parts of the Earth. The first pay-off has been for the best preserved major impact feature on the lunar surface: the Orientale basin that formed at the end of the Late Heavy Bombardment of the Solar System, around 3.8 billion years ago. The ~400 km diameter Orientale basin is at the western border of the moon’s disk visible from Earth, and looks like a gigantic bullseye. Its central crater, floored by dark-coloured basalt melted from the mantle by the power of the impact, is surrounded by three concentric rings extending to 900 km across; a feature seen partially preserved around even larger lunar maria. The structure of such giant ringed basins – also seen on other bodies in the Solar System – has been something of a puzzle since their first recognition on the Moon. A popular view has been that they are akin to the rippling produced dropping a pebble in water, albeit preserved in now solid rock.

The Orientale basin superimposed by the strength of the moon's gravity field. Areas shaded in red have higher gravity, while areas in blue have the least gravity. (Credit: Ernest Wright, NASA/GSFC Scientific Visualization Studio)

The Orientale basin superimposed by the strength of the moon’s gravity field. Areas shaded in red have higher gravity, while areas in blue have the least gravity. (Credit: Ernest Wright, NASA/GSFC Scientific Visualization Studio)

GRAIL has allowed planetary scientists to model a detailed cross section through the lunar crust (Zuber, M.T. and 27 others, 2016. Gravity field of the Orientale basin from the Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory Mission. Science, v. 354, p. 438-441). The 40 km thick anorthositic (feldspar-rich) lunar crust has vanished from beneath the central crater, which is above a great upwards bulge of the lunar mantle mantled by about 2 km of mare basalts. The shape of the crust-mantle boundary beneath the rings shows that it has been thickened by anorthositic debris flung out by the impact. But the rings seem to be controlled by huge faults that penetrate to the mantle: signs of 2-stage gravitational collapse of the edifice produced initially by the impact.

More on planetary impacts


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