Today at a press conference at NASA HQ in Washington, DC, scientists from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC) team announced their discovery of lobate thrust fault scarps on the surface of the Moon that indicate that not only has the Moon's radius shrunk by 100 meters, but it has done so in geologically recent times. High-resolution images of these scarps show that they cross-cut small impact craters, which would normally be removed over hundred-million-year timescales by thermal cycling of the soil by the moon's month-long day, solid body tides from its gravitational interaction with the Earth, and micrometeorite impact gardening.
What would cause such shrinking? When the moon was formed out of the impact of a large planetoid into the infant Earth, it initially was molten. Over time the crust and core solidified, but its mantle still contained a large amount of molten silicate magma. Magma from this "magma ocean" on occasion reached the Moon's surface, filling many of its large impact basins, creating the dark mare basalt regions. Over time, the Moon's mantle cooled and solidified as a result of reduced heating from radioactive elements, conduction through the Moon's crust, and the removal of hot magma through volcanism. Now as you may remember, for most materials, the phase change from a liquid to a solid causes a change in the density of the material. For silicate magma, the density increases, so for a given amount amount of magma, the volume will decrease when it solidifies. When this occurs on a planetary scale, such as a the Moon or Mercury, as the interior of the planet cools and solidifies, the planet or moon shrinks.
my article on various formation models for more information on the details.
This study of lunar lobate scarps highlights the need for global high-resolution studies, whether we are talking about the Moon, Mars, Mercury, or Io, as LROC images allowed researchers to assess the global population of these cliffs. Once their true distribution was determined, they could then come up with a proper model of how they formed. This provided an important glimpse to the Moon's recent geologic activity, after the formation of the mare basalts.
Link: NASA's LRO Reveals 'Incredible Shrinking Moon' [www.nasa.gov]
Summer 2016 issue of The Planetary Report
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