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Study of 4.3 billion-year-old lunar rock overturns theory on formation of the Moon's crust

15 May 2020 

Scientists studying lunar rock collected during the NASA Apollo 17 Mission in 1972 have found new evidence that large portions of the moon’s crust were formed by massive impact events.

This evidence overturns previous theories that the magmas rising from the moon’s interior were responsible for helping form the lunar crust. It was thought that impacts from colliding asteroids and comets were only destructive, but the research has shown that they also helped to build the outer layer of the moon.

The discovery made by scientists funded by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) also provides a unique record of how the terrestrial planets in our solar system were formed and shaped by geological processes over time.

Radiometric age dating of the sample of moon rock at the Swedish Museum of Natural History revealed that it formed over 4.3 billion years ago. Scientists found that the sample contains unique evidence of mineral formation at incredibly high temperatures (in excess of 2300 °C). This can only be achieved by the melting the outer layer of a planet in a very large impact event.

The STFC-funded researchers from the University of Portsmouth, The University of Manchester and The Open University, used a technique called electron backscatter diffraction (EBSD) to discover the former presence of cubic zirconia, a mineral phase that would only occur in rocks heated above 2300 °C. EBSD is a technique that can determine the structure, crystal orientation and phase of materials.

Dr James Darling from the University of Portsmouth said:

“The discovery reveals that unimaginably violent impact events helped to build the lunar crust, not only destroy it. Going forward, it is exciting that we now have laboratory tools to help us fully understand their effects on the terrestrial planets.”

The research paper is now available in Nature Astronomy

An interactive image of the complex crystal analysed in the study can be viewed online using the Virtual Microscope.

Resources on lunar geology for schools, museums and outreach organisers are available from our STFC Lunar Rocks and Meteorites Loan Scheme.

Last updated: 26 May 2020

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