Scientists have finally solved the decades-old mystery surrounding the origin of certain unique and rare Moon rocks, revealing key insights into processes operating deep inside the lunar interior billions of years ago.
High-Titanium Rocks Unlike Anything Seen on Earth
The rocks in question contain unusually high levels of titanium and are chemically quite distinct from most other lunar samples returned by Apollo astronauts over 50 years ago. They also have no direct equivalent among terrestrial rocks.
“The titanium-rich rocks are very unusual types of rocks that are unlike anything else on Earth” said lead researcher Dr. Josep Trigo-Rodríguez, a planetary scientist at the Institute of Space Sciences in Barcelona. “We wanted to figure out how they formed to better understand the Moon’s internal geology.”
The mysterious lunar samples have puzzled generations of scientists since NASA’s Apollo 11 mission first brought back 382 kilograms (842 pounds) of Moon rocks in 1969. Early examination of these rocks over five decades ago revealed a diverse array of rock types, indicating the Moon had a complex geological history.
Several Formation Hypotheses Over the Years
Planetary geologists have proposed various hypotheses about the titanium-rich rocks over the past few decades, like the idea that they might have crystallized from titanium-rich magma early in the Moon’s history.
Others suggested they may represent primordial chunks of titanium-rich minerals that never properly melted early on when the lunar magma ocean was churning.
But the conundrum has persisted due to a lack of comparative titanium-rich samples from Earth and ambiguity around whether the rocks formed deep inside the Moon or on the surface.
Advances in Isotopic Dating Provide Crucial Clues
The new research heavily leans on recent advances in the analysis of isotopic ages of Apollo lunar samples. The ratios between isotopes of elements like uranium and lead locked inside Moon rocks act like geological clocks that can pinpoint when the rocks formed.
In a study published today in Nature Communications, Trigo-Rodríguez and colleagues compiled the isotopic ages of all titanium-rich rock samples collected over the years. They noticed one sample, dubbed 12335, was about 4.3 billion years old.
|Isotopic Age (Years)
“Importantly, sample 12335 predated almost all other Apollo samples, indicating it formed very early on in the Moon’s history” Trigo-Rodríguez explained.
The age aligned well with models predicting when titanium-rich minerals like ilmenite would start melting deep down during the Moon’s early formation. This pointed to 12335 originating in the lunar mantle before making its way up to the surface.
Extreme Heating and Partial Melting Deep In Lunar Interior
Further evidence came from the geochemistry encoded in 12335 which was consistent with the type of partial melting occurring more than 1000 km down – well below the Moon’s thick crust.
“Our petrogenetic modeling showed the rock formed under hot, highly reducing conditions, which you would expect deep in the lunar mantle early on when things were really active” remarked study co-author Dr. Katherine Joy of the University of Manchester.
The extreme heat needed to melt titanium likely came from the crystallizing lunar magma ocean coupled with the decay of radioactive elements driving convection in the mantle shortly after the Moon formed.
“So in summary, heating from below and above created a partially molten zone deep down where titanium minerals melted and mixed before solidifying into rocks like 12335” Joy said. “A piece then made its way upwards somehow before being excavated by an impact event billions of years later.”
Deep Insights into Moon’s Early History and Structure
For Trigo-Rodríguez, the result represents a breakthrough decades in the making. “This is one of those textbook moments in science where a lingering puzzle is finally solved after years of mounting evidence.”
It also provides a unique window into processes operating deep inside the early Moon after it coalesced from the debris of a massive collision between a Mars-sized protoplanet and the early Earth.
“We can now confidently link certain Apollo samples to distinct regions and processes in the lunar interior using multiple lines of evidence” notes Dr. Mahesh Anand, a planetary scientist at the Open University in the UK who penned an analysis for The Planetary Society.
“That gives us crucial empirical data to feed into models of the Moon’s incredibly complex differentiation and evolution over billions of years” Anand writes.
Titanium Origins Solve One Part of Wider Lunar Puzzle
Anand also points out this singular advance is part of a wider renaissance occurring across lunar and planetary science, fueled especially by a flood of new data from recent orbiter missions surveying the lunar surface.
“With the Artemis program gearing up to return humans to the Moon this decade, these kinds of fundamental scientific discoveries paint an intriguing picture about the target they will be exploring” Anand argues.
The result also sets the stage for debates around the best locations to sample as the rover VIPER scouts lunar craters for ice deposits and Artemis astronauts begin collecting new samples as early as 2025.
What This Means for Future Lunar Exploration
The study authors point to several implications stemming from the result which could shape planning for future lunar exploration:
Better context for interpreting Apollo sample collection: resolves ambiguities around certain unusual samples lacking analogs on Earth
Highlights value of reanalyzing existing samples with modern equipment: dating and isotopic techniques have improved vastly since Apollo era
Guides decisions for future sample return missions to the Moon: lunar far side may offer contrasting samples to investigate differentiation early on
Feed new constraints into models of lunar interior/thermal evolution: captures complexity beyond simplified single-stage models
For Dr. Katherine Joy, the last point is arguably the most significant: “This research really demonstrates the Moon’s differentiation into a crust, mantle and core was an incredibly complex process spanning over 4.3 billion years”.
“Resolving part of that complexity by directly sampling distinct regions lets us ground-truth models used to peer back through deep time” Joy emphasized.
What Questions Remain About the Moon’s Complex Origins?
Despite this advance, researchers say many questions still remain about our lone natural satellite’s formation and evolutionary history.
Key outstanding unknowns include:
What subsurface structures exist in the mantle and what is their seismic signature?
How prolonged was the crystallization process of the lunar magma ocean?
How chemically and isotopically heterogeneous is the mantle?
Did distinct lunar reservoirs mix early on or remain isolated?
What were the timescales for mantle overturn and establishment of farside geochemical anomalies?
When did global contractional deformation indicated by thrust faults occur?
“This study convincingly accounts for the origins of these highly unusual titanium-rich rocks, but that’s just one piece of the puzzle” remarks Dr. David Kring of the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston.
“We still need to understand how the Moon’s asymmetrical crustal thickness came about, and the 3D interconnected structure of mantle reservoirs” says Kring. “More samples targeting key gaps from diverse locations will thus be absolutely vital.”
Researchers will get their chance later this decade as new lunar sample return missions commence, promising an exciting revival of studies into our only natural satellite half a century since Apollo astronauts first unlocked its geological secrets.
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