Europa’s Tidal Processes Give Hints to Our Moon’s Far-side Bulge

by Nancy Atkinson on November 11, 2010

The Moon's crust is thickest on the central farside, and becomes thinner towards the north pole in a manner described by a simple mathematical function. Early in lunar evolution, when a magma ocean was present, tides from the Earth could have heated the floating crust nonuniformly, such that the crust thinned at the poles and thickened at the equator. Today, the magma ocean has solidified, but the thick farside crust remains. Figure not to scale. Image © Science/AAAS

A self-conscious Moon might ask, “Does my far side look big?” To which lunar scientists would have to reply in the affirmative. They have long known there is a bulge on the Moon’s far side, a thick region of the lunar crust which underlies the farside highlands. But why that bulge is there has been a mystery, and the fact that the far side always faces away from Earth hasn’t helped. Now, a group of international scientists have found that perhaps the tidal processes of Jupiter’s icy moon, Europa, can provide a clue.

“Europa is a completely different satellite from our moon, but it gave us the idea to look at the process of tidal flexing of the crust over a liquid ocean,” said Ian Garrick-Bethell, the lead author of a new paper that offers an explanation for the lop-sided Moon.

Since the Apollo 15 laser altimeter experiment, scientists have known that a region of the lunar far side highlands is the highest place on the Moon. Additionally, the far side has only highlands and no maria.

Like Europa’s icy crust that sits over an ocean of liquid water, the Moon’s crust once floated on a sub-surface ocean of liquid rock. So, could the same gravitational forces from Jupiter that influence Europa also apply to the Earth’s influence on the early Moon?

Garrick-Bethell, from UC Santa Cruz, and his team found that the shape of the Moon’s bulge can be calculated by looking at the variations in tidal heating as the ancient lunar crust was being torn away from the underlying ocean of liquid magma.

Map of crustal thickness. Credit: Garrick-Bethell, et al.

With Europa in mind, the scientists looked at global topography and gravity data sets of the Moon, trying to determine the possibility of how about 4.4 billion years ago, the gravitational pull of the Earth could have caused tidal flexing and heating of the lunar crust. At the polar regions, where the flexing and heating was greatest, the crust became thinner, while the thickest crust would have formed in the regions in line with the Earth.

To back up their theory, they found that a simple mathematical function — a 2-degree spherical harmonics function — can explain the phenomenon. “What’s interesting is that the form of the mathematical function implies that tides had something to do with the formation of that terrain,” said Garrick-Bethell.

The far side of the Moon, photographed by the crew of Apollo 11 as they circled the Moon in 1969. The large impact basin is Crater 308. Credit: NASA

However, this doesn’t explain why the bulge is now found only on the farside of the Moon. “You would expect to see a bulge on both sides, because tides have a symmetrical effect,” Garrick-Bethell said. “It may be that volcanic activity or other geological processes over the past 4.4 billion years have changed the expression of the bulge on the nearside.”

Garrick-Bethell said his team hopes to continue to do more modeling and calculations to fully describe the far side’s features.

“It’s still not completely clear yet, but we’re starting to chip away at the problem,”he said.

The paper will be published in the November 12, 2010 issue of Science.

(Paper not yet available — we’ll post the link when it goes online).


Nancy Atkinson is Universe Today's Senior Editor. She also works with Astronomy Cast, and is a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.

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