New analysis explains formation of bulge on farside of moon

Nov 11, 2010 By Tim Stephens
This image of the lunar farside from NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter shows the moon's topography with the highest elevations (above 20,000 feet) in red and the lowest areas in blue. Image credit: NASA/Goddard.

(PhysOrg.com) -- A bulge of elevated topography on the farside of the moon--known as the lunar farside highlands--has defied explanation for decades. But a new study led by researchers at the University of California, Santa Cruz, shows that the highlands may be the result of tidal forces acting early in the moon's history when its solid outer crust floated on an ocean of liquid rock.

Ian Garrick-Bethell, an assistant professor of Earth and planetary sciences at UC Santa Cruz, found that the shape of the moon's bulge can be described by a surprisingly simple mathematical function. "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, who is the first author of a paper on the new findings published in the November 11 issue of Science.

The paper describes a process for formation of the lunar highlands that involves tidal heating of the moon's crust about 4.4 billion years ago. At that time, not long after the moon's formation, the crust was decoupled from the mantle below it by an intervening ocean of magma. As a result, the of the Earth caused tidal flexing and heating of the 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.

This process still does not explain why the bulge is now found only on the farside of the . "You would expect to see a bulge on both sides, because tides have a symmetrical effect," Garrick-Bethell said. "It may be that or other over the past 4.4 billion years have changed the expression of the bulge on the nearside."

The paper's coauthors include Francis Nimmo, associate professor of Earth and planetary sciences at UCSC, and Mark Wieczorek, a planetary geophysicist at the Institut de Physique du Globe in Paris. The researchers analyzed topographical data from NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and gravitational data from Japan's Kaguya orbiter.

A map of crustal thickness based on the gravity data showed that an especially thick region of the moon's crust underlies the lunar farside highlands. The variations in crustal thickness on the moon are similar to effects seen on Jupiter's moon Europa, which has a shell of ice over an ocean of liquid water. Nimmo has studied the effects of tidal heating on the structure of Europa, and the researchers applied the same analytical approach to the moon.

"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," Garrick-Bethell said.

The mathematical function that describes the shape of the moon's bulge can account for about one-fourth of the moon's shape, he said. Although mysteries still remain, such as what made the nearside so different, the new study provides a mathematical framework for further investigations into the shape of the moon.

"It's still not completely clear yet, but we're starting to chip away at the problem," Garrick-Bethell said.

Explore further: An unmanned rocket exploded. So what?

Related Stories

Europa's Churn Leads to Oxygen Burn

May 28, 2010

Jupiter’s moon Europa has a salty ocean, and scientists have long wondered if life could be found there. One scientist says Europa also has enough oxygen to support an ocean teeming with life.

Recommended for you

Cassini sees sunny seas on Titan

12 hours ago

(Phys.org) —As it soared past Saturn's large moon Titan recently, NASA's Cassini spacecraft caught a glimpse of bright sunlight reflecting off hydrocarbon seas.

Is space tourism safe or do civilians risk health effects?

15 hours ago

Several companies are developing spacecraft designed to take ordinary citizens, not astronauts, on short trips into space. "Space tourism" and short periods of weightlessness appear to be safe for most individuals ...

An unmanned rocket exploded. So what?

18 hours ago

Sputnik was launched more than 50 years ago. Since then we have seen missions launched to Mercury, Mars and to all the planets within the solar system. We have sent a dozen men to the moon and many more to ...

NASA image: Sunrise from the International Space Station

19 hours ago

NASA astronaut Reid Wiseman posted this image of a sunrise, captured from the International Space Station, to social media on Oct. 29, 2014. Wiseman wrote, "Not every day is easy. Yesterday was a tough one. ...

Copernicus operations secured until 2021

19 hours ago

In a landmark agreement for Europe's Copernicus programme, the European Commission and ESA have signed an Agreement of over €3 billion to manage and implement the Copernicus 'space component' between 2014 ...

User comments : 5

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Ravenrant
not rated yet Nov 12, 2010
Is there a gigantic crater directly opposite the bulge on the other side of the moon?
genastropsychicallst
1 / 5 (2) Nov 12, 2010
Molecules r angularen g separates b, to be read on my website.
Blicker
not rated yet Nov 12, 2010
Is centrifugal force a significant factor? A semi-molten Moon being hurled around always keeping one face towards the Earth I'd expect some extra outward force on the outer surface. Whether it would be enough for this bulge effect I do not know.
Skeptic_Heretic
not rated yet Nov 12, 2010
I'd think that the far side would cool faster than the Earth facing side due to reflected solar radiation and greater tidal influence from the Earth's presence.
tvdog12345
not rated yet Nov 13, 2010
Elsewhere I read that the far-side lunar highlands were formed by the low-angle impact that created the South Pole-Aitken basin.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.