In 1972, the Space Race officially ended as NASA sent one last crew of astronauts to the surface of the Moon (Apollo 17). This was the brass ring that both the US and the Soviets were reaching for, the “Moonshot” that would determine who had supremacy in space. In the current age of renewed space exploration, the next great leap will clearly involve sending astronauts to Mars.
According the Giant Impact Hypothesis, the Earth-Moon system was created roughly 4.5 billion years ago when a Mars-sized object collided with Earth. This impact led to the release of massive amounts of material that eventually coalesced to form the Earth and Moon. Over time, the Moon gradually migrated away from Earth and assumed its current orbit.
Since then, there have been regular exchanges between the Earth and the Moon due to impacts on their surfaces. According to a recent study, an impact that took place during the Hadean Eon (roughly 4 billion years ago) may have been responsible for sending the Earth’s oldest sample of rock to the Moon, where it was retrieved by the Apollo 14 astronauts.
One would think that such large expanses of surface liquid — some of Titan’s seas are as big the Great Lakes — would exhibit at least a little surface action on a world with an atmosphere as dense as Titan’s. But repeated radar imaging has shown their surfaces to be “as smooth as the paint on a car.” Over the past several years scientists have puzzled over this anomaly but now they may have truly seen the light — that is, reflected light from what could actually be waves on Titan!
Using data acquired during flybys of Titan in 2012 and 2013, planetary scientist Jason Barnes from the University of Idaho and a team of researchers from several other institutions including JPL, Cornell, and MIT, have identified what might be waves in the surface of Punga Mare, one of Titan’s biggest lakes.
For a sense of scale, Lake Victoria, the largest lake in Africa, could fit lengthwise across Titan’s 380-km (236-mile) -wide Punga Mare.
Variations in specular highlights in four pixels observed in the surface of Punga Mare by Cassini’s VIMS (Visible and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer) have been interpreted by the team as being the result of waves — or, perhaps more accurately, ripples, seeing as that they are estimated to be a mere 2 centimeters in height.
Still, based on what’s been observed thus far on Titan, that’s downright choppy.
If the Cassini observations interpreted by Barnes et al. are indicative of waves in Punga Mare, they could also explain previous specular variations seen in other bodies of liquid, like the smaller Kivu Lacus (top image).
“If correct this discovery represents the first sea-surface waves known outside of Earth.”
– Jason W. Barnes et al.
Then again, wave action isn’t the only possible answer. Similar varied specular highlights could also be caused by a wet surface — like a methane mud flat. Further observations will be needed to rule out other possibilities and obtain a more accurate “surf forecast” for Titan.
When the Moon was receiving its highest number of impacts, so was Earth. Credit: Dan Durda
Some questions about our own planet are best answered by looking someplace else entirely… in the case of impact craters and when, how and how often they were formed, that someplace can be found shining down on us nearly every night: our own companion in space, the Moon.
By studying lunar impact craters both young and old scientists can piece together the physical processes that took place during the violent moments of their creation, as well as determine how often Earth — a considerably bigger target — was experiencing similar events (and likely in much larger numbers as well.)
With no substantial atmosphere, no weather and no tectonic activity, the surface of the Moon is a veritable time capsule for events taking place in our region of the Solar System. While our constantly-evolving Earth tends to hide its past, the Moon gives up its secrets much more readily… which is why present and future lunar missions are so important to science.
Take the crater Linné, for example. A young, pristine lunar crater, the 2.2-km-wide Linné was formed less than 10 million years ago… much longer than humans have walked the Earth, yes, but very recently on lunar geologic terms.
It was once thought that the circular Linné (as well as other craters) is bowl-shaped, thus setting a precedent for the morphology of craters on the Moon and on Earth. But laser-mapping observations by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (at right) determined in early 2012 that that’s not the case; Linné is actually more of a truncated inverted cone, with a flattened interior floor surrounded by sloping walls that rise up over half a kilometer to its rim.
On our planet the erosive processes of wind, water, and earth soon distort the shapes of craters like Linné, wearing them down, filling them in and eventually hiding them from plain sight completely. But in the Moon’s airless environment where the only weathering comes from more impacts they retain their shape for much longer lengths of time, looking brand-new for many millions of years. By studying young craters in greater detail scientists are now able to better figure out just what happens when large objects strike the surface of worlds — events that can and do occur quite regularly in the Solar System, and which may have even allowed life to gain a foothold on Earth.
Most of the craters visible on the Moon today — Linné excluded, of course — are thought to have formed within a narrow period of time between 3.8 and 3.9 billion years ago. This period, called the Late Heavy Bombardment, saw a high rate of impact events throughout the inner Solar System, not only on the Moon but also on Mars, Mercury, presumably Venus and Earth as well. In fact, since at 4 times its diameter the Earth is a much larger target than the Moon, it stands to reason that Earth was impacted many more times than the Moon as well. Such large amounts of impacts introduced material from the outer Solar System to the early Earth as well as melted areas of the surface, releasing compounds like water that had been locked up in the crust… and even creating the sorts of environments where life could have begun to develop and thrive.
(It’s been suggested that there was even a longer period of heavy impact rates nicknamed the “late late heavy bombardment” that lingered up until about 2.5 billion years ago. Read more here.)
In the video below lunar geologist David Kring discusses the importance of impacts on the evolution of the Moon, Earth and eventually life as we know it today:
“Impact cratering in Earth’s past has affected not only the geologic but the biologic evolution of our planet, and we were able to deduce that in part by the lessons we learned by studying the Moon… and you just have to wonder what other things we can learn by going back to the Moon and studying that planetary body further.”
It’s these sorts of connections that make lunar exploration so valuable. Keys to our planet’s past are literally sitting on the surface of the Moon, a mere 385,000 km away, waiting for us to just scoop them up and bring them back. While the hunt for a biological history on Mars or resource-mining an asteroid are definitely important goals in their own right, only the Moon holds such direct references to Earth. It’s like an orbiting index to the ongoing story of our planet — all we have to do is make the connections.
New investigations of lunar samples collected during the Apollo missions have revealed origins from beyond the Earth-Moon system, supporting a hypothesis of ancient cataclysmic bombardment for both worlds.
Using scanning electron microscopes, researchers at the Lunar-Planetary Institute and Johnson Space Center have re-examined breccia regolith samples returned from the Moon, chemically mapping the lunar rocks to discern more compositional detail than ever before.
What they discovered was that many of the rocks contain bits of material that is chondritic in origin — that is, it came from asteroids, and not from elsewhere on the Moon or Earth.
Chondrites are meteorites that originate from the oldest asteroids, formed during the development of the Solar System. They are composed of the initial material that made up the stellar disk, compressed into spherical chondrules. Chondrites are some of the rarest types of meteorites found on Earth today but it’s thought that at one time they rained down onto our planet… as well as our moon.
The Lunar Cataclysm Hypothesis suggests that there was a period of extremely active bombardment of the Moon’s surface by meteorite impacts around 3.9 billion years ago. Because very few large impact events — based on melt rock samples — seem to have taken place more than 3.85 billion years ago, scientists suspect such an event heated the Moon’s surface enough prior to that period to eradicate any older impact features — a literal resurfacing of the young Moon.
There’s also evidence that there was a common source for the impactors, based on composition of the chondrites. What event took place in the Solar System that sent so much material hurtling our way? Was there a massive collision between asteroids? Did a slew of comets come streaking into the inner solar system? Were we paid a brief, gravitationally-disruptive visit by some other rogue interstellar object? Whatever it was that occurred, it changed the face of our Moon forever.
Curiously enough, it was at just about that time that we find the first fossil evidence of life on Earth. If there’s indeed a correlation, then whatever happened to wipe out the Moon’s oldest craters may also have cleared the slate for life here — either by removing any initial biological development that may have occurred or by delivering organic materials necessary for life in large amounts… or perhaps a combination of both.
The new findings from the Apollo samples provide unambiguous evidence that a large-scale impact event was taking place during this period on the Moon — and most likely on Earth too. Since the Moon lacks atmospheric weathering or water erosion processes it serves as a sort of “time capsule”, recording the evidence of cosmic events that take place around the Earth-Moon neighborhood. While evidence for any such impacts would have long been erased from Earth’s surface, on the Moon it’s just a matter of locating it.
In fact, due to the difference in surface area, Earth may have received up to ten times more impacts than the Moon during such a cosmic cataclysm. With over 1,700 craters over 20 km identified on the Moon dating to a period around 3.9 billion years ago, Earth should have 17,000 craters over 20 km… with some ranging over 1,000 km! Of course, that’s if the craters could had survived 3.9 billion years of erosion and tectonic activity, which they didn’t. Still, it would have been a major event for our planet and anything that may have managed to start eking out an existence on it. We might never know if life had gained a foothold on Earth prior to such a cataclysmic bombardment, but thanks to the Moon (and the Apollo missions!) we do have some evidence of the events that took place.
The LPI-JSC team’s paper was submitted to the journal Science and accepted for publication on May 2. See the abstract here, and read more on the Lunar Science Institute’s website here.