The Moon has a Solid Core Like the Earth

A new study suggests that the moon's magnetic field from a dynamo in its liquid metallic core (inner red sphere) lasted 1 billion years longer than thought. (Image credit: Hernán Cañellas (provided by Benjamin Weiss))

Some fifty years ago, the Apollo Program sent the first astronauts to the Moon. In addition to the many science experiments they conducted on the surface, the Apollo astronauts brought back samples of lunar rock for analysis. The Soviet Luna program sent several robotic missions to the Moon around the same time that conducted sample-return missions. The examination of these rocks revealed a great deal about the composition of the Moon and led to new theories about the formation and evolution of the Earth-Moon system.

For example, analysis of the rocks revealed that the Earth and the Moon are similarly composed of silicate minerals and metals. This led to theories that the Moon’s interior is similarly divided into a silicate mantle and crust and a metallic core. However, many aspects of this theory, like the structure of the core (solid or molten?), have been debated for decades. According to new findings by a team of French scientists, it is now a scientific certainty that the Moon’s innermost region consists of a solid inner core surrounded by a molten outer core (just like Earth’s).

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The Moon’s Magnetosphere Used to be Twice as Strong as the Earth’s

For decades, scientists have held that the Earth-Moon system formed as a result of a collision between Earth and a Mars-sized object roughly 4.5 billion years ago. Known as the Giant Impact Hypothesis, this theory explains why Earth and the Moon are similar in structure and composition. Interestingly enough, scientists have also determined that during its early history, the Moon had a magnetosphere – much like Earth does today.

However, a new study led by researchers at MIT (with support provided by NASA) indicates that at one time, the Moon’s magnetic field may have actually been stronger than Earth’s. They were also able to place tighter constraints on when this field petered out, claiming it would have happened about 1 billion years ago. These findings have helped resolve the mystery of what mechanism powered the Moon’s magnetic field over time.

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Early Tidal and Rotational Forces Helped Shape Moon

Using a precision formation-flying technique, the twin GRAIL spacecraft will map the moon's gravity field, as depicted in this artist's rendering. Radio signals traveling between the two spacecraft provide scientists the exact measurements required as well as flow of information not interrupted when the spacecraft are at the lunar farside, not seen from Earth. The result should be the most accurate gravity map of the moon ever made. The mission also will answer longstanding questions about Earth's moon, including the size of a possible inner core, and it should provide scientists with a better understanding of how Earth and other rocky planets in the solar system formed. GRAIL is a part of NASA's Discovery Program. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The shape of the moon deviates from a simple sphere in a way that scientists have struggled to explain. But new research shows that tidal forces during the moon’s early history can explain most of its large-scale topography. As the moon cooled and solidified more than four billion years ago, the sculpting effects of tidal and rotational forces became frozen in place.

Astronomers think the moon formed when a rogue planet, larger than Mars, struck the Earth in a great, glancing blow. A cloud rose 13,700 miles (22,000 kilometers) above the Earth, where it condensed into innumerable solid particles that orbited the Earth. Over time these moonlets combined to form the moon.

So the moon was sculpted by Earth’s gravity from the get-go. Although scientists have long postulated that tidal forces helped shape the molten moon, the new study provides a much more detailed understanding of the additional forces at play.

Ian Garrick-Bethell from UCSC and colleagues studied topographic data gathered by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) and information about the moon’s gravity field collected by the agency’s twin GRAIL (Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory) spacecraft.

Not long after the moon’s formation, the crust was decoupled from the mantle below by an intervening ocean of magma. This caused immense tidal forces. At the poles, where the flexing and heating was greatest, the crust became thinner, while the thickest crust formed at the equators. Garrick-Bethel likened this to a lemon shape with the long axis of the lemon pointing at the Earth.

But this process does not explain why the bulge is now only found on the far side of the moon. You would expect to see it on both sides, because tides have a symmetrical effect.

“In 2010, we found one area that fits the tidal heating effect, but that study left open the rest of the moon and didn’t include the tidal-rotational deformation. In this paper we tried to bring all those considerations together,” said Garrick-Bethell in a press release.

Any rotational forces would cause the spinning moon to flatten slightly at the poles and bulge out near the equator. It would have had a similar effect on the moon’s shape as the tidal heating did — both of which left distinct signatures in the moon’s gravity field. Because the crust is lighter than the underlying mantle, gravity signals reveal variations in the moon’s internal structure, many of which may be due to previous forces.

Interestingly, Garrick-Bethell and colleagues discovered that the moon’s overall gravity field is no longer aligned with the topography. The long axis of the moon doesn’t point directly toward Earth as it likely did when the moon first formed; instead, it’s offset by about 30 degrees.

“The moon that faced us a long time ago has shifted, so we’re no longer looking at the primordial face of the moon,” said Garrick-Bethell. “Changes in the mass distribution shifted the orientation of the moon. The craters removed some mass, and there were also internal changes, probably related to when the moon became volcanically active.”

The details and timing of these processes are still uncertain, but the new analysis should help shed light on the tidal and rotational forces abundant throughout the Solar System and the Galaxy. These simple forces, after all, have helped shape our nearest neighbor and the most distant exoplanet.

The results have been published today in Nature.