April 8, 2013
Though unremarkable in appearance compared to the roughly 4,000 craters on the Moon in its size range, the 20 km diameter crater Shackleton has been the source of relentless scientific controversy for the past 20 years. Shackleton is located at the south pole of the Moon; indeed, its near side rim is the precise location of the geographic pole itself. Its location makes observation by Earth-based telescopes difficult and it was not well photographed by the Lunar Orbiter series (our principal source of lunar images) of the 1960s. That all changed in 1994 with the flight of the joint DoD-NASA mission to the Moon, Clementine.
Clementine carried cameras that globally imaged the Moon in eleven visible and near-infrared wavelengths. In addition, it mapped the surface and lighting of the poles of the Moon at uniform resolution over the course of almost three lunar days (74 Earth days). When the Science Team first saw the south polar mosaic, the extent of darkness in the map was striking. Because the Moon’s spin axis is close to perpendicular to the ecliptic plane, the Sun is always at the horizon at the lunar poles. Instead of rising and setting, the Sun circles around the poles at or near the horizon. Because of this grazing incidence, an area in a topographic depression may be in permanent shadow. And so it appeared for Shackleton crater in the Clementine data, setting off bells in the heads of the Science Team.
A key controversy of the post-Apollo era was whether the lunar poles might contain water or not. Although the Apollo samples had been studied and found to be “bone-dry,” we had not been to the poles on any Apollo mission. We knew that any shadowed areas had to be extremely cold as well as permanently dark. As water-bearing debris in the form of asteroids and comets constantly strike the Moon, it was thought that some of that water might get into a polar “cold trap” and would be kept there (essentially) forever – billions of years of impacting cosmic “debris” can add up.
Clementine was not configured to measure the presence of water, but a cleverly improvised experiment used the spacecraft’s data transmitter to beam radio waves into the dark regions near the poles and listen to their reflected echoes on the enormous (70 m) dish antenna of NASA’s Deep Space Network. Interestingly, the reflections indicated an enhancement of “same sense” polarization within the (very large) resolution cell that contained Shackleton crater. A collect of data from a nearby sunlit area (taken as an experimental control) did not show this peak. The Clementine team interpreted the RF peak as evidence for the presence of a few percent water ice within the dark, cold interior of Shackleton crater. The media quickly spread the startling news about water on our “bone-dry” Moon.
Such a controversial conclusion did not go unchallenged. Some in the radar community argued that abundant wavelength-sized rocks on the surface were the source of the enhanced same sense reflection. Since the lunar surface is indeed rocky, this interpretation could not be ruled out. Then a few years later, the Lunar Prospector (LP) mission found an enhancement of hydrogen concentration at both poles of the Moon; as hydrogen is a major constituent of water, the idea ice exists in the dark areas gained credence and has lead to a decade-long scientific search (using a variety of techniques) for lunar polar ice. Though many areas near the poles were studied in detail, attention continued to be drawn back to Shackleton and the area near the south pole.
From studying Clementine images, we discovered that part of the rim crest of Shackleton is one of the most sunlit areas on the Moon. Now we had a double-attraction: constant sunlight with water ice nearby. At a press briefing in 1996, I called this area of water and sunlight “the most valuable piece of real estate in the Solar System.” Nothing found subsequently has changed my mind on that judgment.
So what have we learned about Shackleton lately? Many different, new sensors have flown to the Moon in the last few years, including radar, ultraviolet (UV) imaging, laser reflections, and low-light level imaging. And yet again, Shackleton crater continues to confound us with contradictory evidence, both for and against the presence of water ice in its interior.
In 2009, the question regarding the presence of water ice somewhere near the lunar south pole was answered when the LCROSS impactor threw up a cloud of water vapor and ice particles during its collision with the floor of the nearby crater Cabaeus. Spectral mapping instruments on three different spacecraft (Chandrayaan-1, Cassini, and EPOXI) documented the presence of adsorbed water on the lunar surface, increasing in concentration with latitude toward both poles. A small impact probe flown by India (MIP) passed through a water vapor zone in the exosphere just above the lunar south pole. And radar images from Mini-RF, our radar imaging experiment on both Chandrayaan-1 and Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), found evidence of high same sense reflections (just as Clementine had suggested in 1994) within the interior of Shackleton crater. These new lines of supporting evidence were countered by Japanese researchers, whose Kaguya spacecraft imaged the interior of the crater and found morphology similar to other lunar craters in the same size-class. But no one had ever claimed that the interior of Shackleton was a skating rink of pure ice – the lunar polar ice is partly covered by waterless dust and mixed with an unknown amount of dry regolith.
Interpretation of the new data continues to vex us. The LOLA (laser altimeter) team on LRO recently published a paper that documents the high reflectivity (at 1 micron wavelength) of the walls of Shackleton. Although the team’s favored interpretation is that this is caused by a constant exposure of fresh material on a steep slope, they also note that it is consistent with the presence of water ice on the walls of the crater. In addition, a team analyzing neutron spectrometer data from both LP and LRO found evidence in the fast neutron data (never before analyzed) that water in the interior of Shackleton is a possible explanation for its signal. Detailed analysis of the Mini-RF data for Shackleton corrected for its steep wall slopes and found that the presence of 5-10 wt.% water there provides the best model fit to the observed data. Newly obtained UV images from LRO show the existence of water frost in the interiors of the craters Haworth and Shackleton, and the neutron detector on LRO shows enhanced hydrogen within both Shoemaker and Shackleton craters. The Japanese team from Kaguya continue to insist that the no-ice interpretation is the correct one.
So we are left with a mystery. Some evidence is pro-ice and some is contra-ice. I find it interesting that for most of the investigators, new data does not necessarily change any minds, but tends to be interpreted in a way most favorable to their previously published ideas. This should not be terribly surprising; the people who have argued for some specific interpretation presumably did so for good reasons and desire hard and clear-cut evidence to the contrary before abandoning a previously held position, one no doubt reached after much thought and soul-searching.
The way to unravel the water-ice mystery is to go to the surface of the lunar south pole (or both poles) and measure the composition of the surfaces in question. Getting a definitive answer about the nature of lunar water would be game changing. Some say the bigger mystery is: Why hasn’t the United States sent a rover to the south pole of the Moon to take a closer look?
December 2, 2012
Mercury – the planet, not the element – was in the news this past week. For some time, we had suspected that the poles of Mercury might harbor deposits of water ice. This – on a planet so close to the Sun that the surface temperature at the equator is hot enough to melt lead!
Yet like the Moon, Mercury’s spin axis is perpendicular to the plane in which it orbits the Sun. This means that large craters near Mercury’s poles lie in permanent shadow (“shivering” around -170° C), unaffected by the Sun’s searing heat (equivalent to more than eleven times the solar flux we get on Earth). As on the Moon, these permanently shadowed areas get heat from only two sources – the 3 K background heat of space, created during the Big Bang some 15 billion years ago, and whatever heat is being generated now from the deep interior (a quantity that geophysicists call the heat flow of a planet).
Large planets (like Earth) generate heat mostly from the decay of radioactive elements deep inside them. This heat is lost largely through the phenomenon of volcanism, in which melted rock from the interior is erupted onto a planet’s surface as lava and ash. Smaller planets and moons likewise experience this heating and volcanism, but because they are have lower overall contents of heat-producing elements, their volcanic episodes occurred in the distant past. Much of the heat of these smaller planets has been largely dissipated. Thus, on Mercury, we suspect that the overall heat flow is very low, resulting in extremely cold temperatures on the floors of its permanently shaded polar craters.
For many years, astronomers have studied Mercury with radio telescopes from Earth (using radar to make images of its surface). Because the orbital inclination of Mercury is relatively high (about 7°), we can get a fairly good look into the interiors of the polar craters. Interestingly, even though Mercury is much farther away than the Moon, we can see more of the mercurian polar areas because of this relatively high orbital inclination (the Moon’s orbital plane is inclined only 5°). These radar pictures showed an amazing and unexpected feature – the dark areas are filled with material that is highly reflective at radio frequencies, properties similar to the surfaces of the icy moons of Jupiter (Europa, Ganymede and Callisto).
These results were so unexpected and startling that debate raged for many years whether these deposits really were what they appeared to be: water ice. Facts are stubborn things and few materials have radio properties similar to ice. Some suggested that sulfur might be an alternative explanation, but provided little evidence for such behavior. Moreover, another moon of Jupiter, Io, which has a surface largely composed of sulfur, does not show the radar brightness or “glint” seen on the other, ice-rich Jovian moons.
The debate on the nature of the Mercury polar deposits has now been settled with the release of new data from the MESSENGER mission. Launched on August 3, 2004, with insertion into obit around the planet on March 18, 2011, the spacecraft has been taking pictures and making measurements of Mercury for the last two years. We have mapped the extent of darkness near the poles, measured the temperatures of the surface inside these regions, and detected the presence of significant amounts of hydrogen there. All of these results are strongly supportive of the water ice interpretation.
The existence of ice near the poles of Mercury supports the case for water ice on our own Moon, although there are some significant differences between the two occurrences. Like Mercury, the Moon’s spin axis is nearly perpendicular to the plane of its orbit around the Sun. The similarity of the terrain of both bodies results in deep holes that hide large expanses of terrain from the glare and heat of the Sun. Both objects have been volcanically active in the past, but not today, meaning that the average rates of heat flow on both are low. These properties result in the creation of polar “cold traps” in which any entering volatile substance (such as water molecules) cannot escape.
The solid bodies of the inner Solar System are constantly hit by debris from comets and asteroids. This material contains water, both in free form and bound within hydrous minerals. On smaller objects (like the Moon and Mercury), most of this water is lost to space, but we suspected that some of it might be retained within these dark cold traps near the poles. Now we know that such a process does occur.
Differences between the Moon and Mercury result in differing amounts and settings for their polar deposits. Being much closer to the Sun, one might expect Mercury to contain less water ice, but a variety of evidence suggests that the opposite is the case. The polar ice of Mercury appears to be greater in extent and thickness than comparable deposits on the Moon. This probably results from two factors. First, Mercury is a bigger object, with a surface gravity about twice that of the Moon. Thus, it is more difficult for water to “escape” from Mercury. Second, the closeness of Mercury to the Sun (the edge of biggest gravity well of the Solar System) results in a higher flux of cometary impacts there than experienced in the Earth-Moon system. So more water is being added to Mercury, where it is more easily retained.
Nonetheless, both Moon and Mercury have similar polar environments and processes. The long debate – a scientific controversy for over 50 years – about water at the poles of these objects has been resolved. The next steps will be to characterize these deposits in situ using a soft lander and selected instruments to measure the amounts, states and distributions of water in the polar areas. Because of the great difficulty in even getting into orbit around Mercury (let alone landing there), doing this first on the Moon will mostly likely happen first. So, here again is another rationale for sending a robotic surveying lander and rover mission to the poles of the Moon – in addition to characterizing these areas for our future presence there, by inference, we will also learn about the polar processes on and environment of Mercury.
A planetary “two-fer.” Let’s get on with it.
November 17, 2012
Space missions are commonly thought of as the ultimate in “high tech.” After all, rockets blast off into the wild blue yonder, accelerate their payloads to hypersonic and orbital speeds and then operate in zero gravity in the ice-cold, black sky of space. It requires our best technology to pull off this modern miracle and even then, things can go wrong. Why would anyone believe that with high technology, sometimes less can be more – that we’re missing a bet by not utilizing current technology. Like the intellectual tug of war involving man vs. machine, there also is a tug of war between proven technology and high-tech. Creating these barriers and distinctions is nonsensical. We need it all. And we can have it all.
Point in question – in situ resource utilization (ISRU), which is the general term given to the concept of learning how to use the materials and energy we find in space. The idea of learning how to “live off the land” in space has been around for a long, long time. Countless papers have been written discussing the theory and practice of this operational approach. Yet to date, the only resource we have actually used in space is the conversion of sunlight into electricity via arrays of photovoltaic cells. Such power generation is clearly “mature” from a technical viewpoint, but it had to be demonstrated in actual spaceflight before it became considered as such (the earliest satellites were powered by batteries).
The reason we have not used ISRU is because we’ve spent the last 30 years in low Earth orbit, without access to the material resources of space. Many ideas have been proposed to use the material resources of the Moon. A big advantage of doing so is that much less mass needs to be transported from Earth. The propellant needed to transport a unit of mass from the Earth to the Moon keeps us hobbled to the tyranny of the rocket equation – a constant roadblock to progress. If it takes several thousand dollars to launch one pound into Earth orbit, multiply that amount times ten to get the cost to put a pound of mass on the Moon.
In the space business, new technologies tend to be viewed with a jaundiced eye. Aerospace engineers in particular are typically very conservative when it comes to integrating new technology into spacecraft and mission designs, largely on the basis that if we are not careful, missions can fail in a spectacularly dreadful fashion. To determine if a technology is ready for prime time, NASA developed the Technology Readiness Level (TRL) scale, a nine-step list of criteria that managers use to evaluate and classify how mature a technical concept is and whether the new technology is mission ready.
Resource utilization has a very low TRL level – usually TRL 4 or lower. Thus, many engineers don’t think of ISRU as a viable technique to implement on a real mission. It seems too “far out” (more science fiction than science). Believing that a technology is too immature for use can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, a “Catch-22” for spaceflight: a technology is too immature for flight because it’s never flown and it’s never flown because it’s too immature. This prejudice is widespread among many “old hands” in the space business, who wield TRL quite effectively in order to keep new and innovative ideas stuffed in the closet and off flight manifests.
In truth, the idea that the processing and use of off-planet resources is “high technology” is exactly backwards – most of the ideas proposed for ISRU are some of the simplest and oldest technologies known to man. One of the first ideas advanced for using resources on the Moon involve building things out of bulk regolith (rocks and soil of the lunar surface). This is certainly not high-tech; the use of building aggregate dates back to ancient times, reaching a high level of sophistication under the Romans, who over 2000 years ago built what is still the largest free-supported concrete dome in the world (the Pantheon). The Coliseum was made of concrete faced by marble. The Romans also built a complex network of roads, some which remain in use to this day; paving and grading is one of the oldest and most straightforward technologies known. Odd as it may seem, sand and gravel building material is the largest source of wealth from a terrestrial resource – the biggest economic material resource on Earth.
Recently, interest has focused on the harvesting and use of water, found as ice deposits, at the poles of the Moon. Digging up ice-laden soil and heating it to extract water is very old, dating back to at least prehistoric times. This water could contain other substances, including possibly toxic amounts of some exotic elements, such as silver and mercury. No problem – we understand fractional distillation, a medieval separation technique based on the differing boiling temperatures of various substances. Again, this concept is not particularly high-tech as only a heater and a cooling column is needed (basically the configuration of an oil refinery). Some workers have suggested that lunar regolith could be mined for metals, which can then be used to manufacture both large construction pieces and complex equipment. Extracting metal from rocks and minerals is likewise very old, developed by the ancients and simply improved in efficiency over time. Processes like carbothermal reduction have been used for hundreds of years. The reactions and yields are well known, and the machinery needed to create a processing stream is simple and easy to operate.
In short, the means needed to extract and use the material wealth of the Moon and other extraterrestrial bodies is technology that is centuries old. Even advanced chemical processing was largely completely developed by the 19th Century in both Europe and America. The “new” aspects of ISRU technology revolve around the use of computers to control and regulate the processing stream. Such control is already used in many industries on Earth, including the new and potentially revolutionary technique of three-dimensional printing. A key aspect of the old “Faster-Cheaper-Better” idea (one NASA never really embraced) was to push the envelope by relying more on “off-the-wall” ideas, whereby more innovation on more flights would lead to greater capability over time.
Nothing that we plan to do on the Moon involves magic, alchemy or extremely high technology. Like most new fields of endeavor, we can start small and build capability over time. The TRL concept was designed as a guideline. It was not intended as a weapon eliminating possibly game-changing techniques from consideration or to carve out funding territories. Attitudes toward TRL must change at all levels, from the lowly subsystem to the complete, end-to-end architectural plan. A critical first step toward true space utilization and for understanding and controlling our destiny there is to recognize and take advantage of the leverage one gets from lunar (and in time planetary) resource utilization.
October 17, 2012
New data returned from a fleet of orbiting satellites changes our perceptions of the history and processes of the Moon. Concentrated at both lunar poles, and to date the most striking discovery, is the documentation of the presence of large amounts of water. Though this water has been confirmed by several differing techniques (from multiple missions), we remain uncertain about its source. Two principal origins have been proposed: 1) water added by the in-fall of water-bearing meteorites and comets during the impact bombardment of the Moon; and 2) the manufacture of water from hydrogen implanted in the lunar soil by the wind from the Sun.
A recent discovery may shed some new light on the origin of lunar water. Researchers conducting detailed examination of tiny fragments of glass in soil returned by the Apollo astronauts found the molecule hydroxyl (OH) present in the glass. Interestingly, the isotopic composition of these OH molecules indicates the bulk of the hydrogen comes from the Sun, not from cometary and asteroidal impacts.
The Moon has no atmosphere and no global magnetic field. As a result, the solar wind – the stream of atoms and molecules constantly emitted by the Sun – directly impinges upon the lunar surface. Most of this solar wind consists of hydrogen, either in the form of neutral atoms or positively charged ions (i.e., protons). After it encounters the Moon, this spray of hydrogen has a complex fate, with at least some of it being implanted into the lunar dust. In a process called adsorption, many of the hydrogen atoms stick to the surfaces of the dust grains. The amount of adsorbed hydrogen varies by position and chemical composition around the Moon, but it can be present in quantities ranging from less than 10 to over 100 parts per million (ppm).
Impact glass is a major component of lunar regolith – up to 60% by weight of the soil at some landing sites. The constant bombardment of the lunar surface by microscopic meteorites crushes and grinds up the surface rock, continually mixing the outer layer of the Moon. When a micrometeorite strikes a rock, it forms a micro-crater (wholly melting the surface beneath this pit) and creates a clear, chemically homogeneous glass particle. However, when a micrometeorite strikes lunar soil instead of rock, its energy is converted mostly into heat. This flash heating creates a mixture of melt and mineral debris called agglutinate glass.
The new work details results of analyses of agglutinates returned from several lunar landing sites. Their study measured both the amounts of hydroxyl present and its isotopic composition. A normal atom of hydrogen is a single proton and an electron. But in a rare form of hydrogen, called deuterium, the nucleus contains both a proton and a neutron. The ratio of this form of “heavy hydrogen” to “normal” hydrogen is unique for different materials throughout the Solar System. By tracking the D/H ratio in the sample, one can assign a source origin to the measured hydrogen.
When the lunar agglutinate glasses were studied, it was found that their D/H ratios indicated that most of the hydrogen in the hydroxyl molecules came from the Sun and not from cometary or meteoritic sources. However, the source of the hydrogen is not completely solar, as the D/H ratios suggest some mixing with a subordinate component of either lunar or cometary origin. The authors of this study suggest that the hydroxyl found on the Moon was created when a small impact flash heated the soil, releasing the adsorbed hydrogen and chemically reducing the metallic oxides in the soil into native metal (found as extremely tiny grains on the surfaces of the agglutinates) and hydroxyl molecules. Multiplied by billions, such a process could account for the generation of water on the lunar surface. Subsequent migration of these molecules toward cooler-than-average areas of the Moon (i.e., the higher latitudes, up to and including the poles) may have created the polar ice deposits found by numerous techniques. In the view of the authors of this study, lunar water comes mostly (but not entirely) from the Sun. This constant process, occurring on the sunlit hemisphere of the Moon, could create an enormous reservoir of hydroxyl molecules (in motion due to their thermal instability), slowly but constantly moving toward the poles.
If such a process occurs on the Moon, one might expect the accumulation of water in every location where water is stable (i.e., within every permanently dark and cold region near both poles). But it appears that ice at the poles is not uniformly distributed, occurring in high concentration in some areas while absent in others. This pattern suggests that the source of polar water might be controlled by a non-equillibrium process, such as episodic bombardment by asteroids and comets. In fact, both solar wind-produced and cometary water may be present at the poles, but until the ice there is actually analyzed for its D/H content, we cannot be certain of its origin. Such a measurement does not require the return of a polar ice sample to the Earth. It could be made remotely in situ on the Moon with a properly instrumented robotic spacecraft.
It is important to emphasize that although the quantities of water generated by this process are potentially very large, the hydroxyl in agglutinate glass should not be considered an economic resource. These molecules occur globally but at very low levels of concentration (tens of ppm). Even if this water is the primary and ultimate source reservoir of lunar water, the migration of the molecules and their subsequent collection by the cold traps near the poles serve as a concentrating mechanism, where ice accumulates in large quantities, confined within small areas — the classic definition of an ore body.
What a change has occured in the mindset the lunar science community in the past few years! From a bone-dry lump of rock in space to a complex, still mysterious body with a dynamic hydrological cycle. It’s clear that many more discoveries about our Moon and its resources have yet to be revealed. The more we learn about the Moon, the greater the range of processes we must account for and the more subtle and complex its history becomes.
October 10, 2012
The color of the Moon has been studied for years. Lunar color is a subtle, yet fascinating phenomenon. Just when it seemed that we had an explanation, complications would arise. We now think we have a reasonable explanation for it. So, why is the Moon gray? Or to ask the question “scientifically”— What factors account for the range of spectral reflectance seen on the Moon?
Early Apollo astronauts were very impressed with the Moon’s lack of color. During Apollo 8 (first mission to orbit the Moon in 1968) Jim Lovell remarked, “The Moon is basically gray – no color.” The Apollo 10 crew was struck by the numerous brownish hues exhibited by the Moon – from a bright tan to a dark, chocolate brown. When the first astronauts landed and walked on the Moon (Apollo 11), they had an even closer view. Buzz Aldrin mentioned that although the surface color was basically gray, he could see interesting colors within some rocks outside the LM window. During the EVA, Aldrin mentioned to Neil Armstrong that he had seen “some purple rocks.” Purple? — perhaps so.
The Apollo 15 crew was surprised on their 1971 mission to catch a fleeting glimpse of green on the surface (in film shot earlier by crews on the lunar surface, color was too subtle to be seen). When they raised the sun visors of their helmets to again see that the soil was gray, the disappointment in their voices was palpable. But then, at the very next station, they again saw a flash of green and this time, it was still green when the visors were raised. Despite the predictable remarks about “green cheese,” this lunar material – consisting of volcanic glass erupted from deep (> 400 km depth) within the Moon under high pressure – was still green when brought back to Earth.
During their second lunar traverse in 1972, the crew of Apollo 17 found orange soil at Shorty crater. Also volcanic glass, this soil is made up of tiny (~50 micron) beads of orange glass, again erupted from great depth. It is orange (as opposed to the Apollo 15 green glass) because of its relatively high titanium content. It is mixed with black glass beads, of identical composition, but in this case, partly crystallized. Subsequent study of the Apollo samples have found volcanic glass fragments in almost every color in the spectrum, from red to yellow and brown in addition to the two described above.
At this point, it is tempting to ascribe lunar color seen at a distance to the intimate mixing of a variety of colors present at fine scale. But this is not quite correct. Most returned lunar samples are also gray, ranging from a very dark charcoal to a light, almost white-gray shade. Minor variations can be seen as a result of the presence of certain minerals. In particular, the mineral olivine (an Mg- and Fe-rich silicate) is abundant in the lunar crust and is often green or a brownish yellow. Ilmenite (and iron- and titanium oxide) is bluish-black and probably the source of the “purple” Aldrin saw in some rocks during the Apollo 11 EVA. Moreover, the astronauts could sometimes see significant color units from space. After his surface visit, Apollo 17 astronaut Jack Schmitt (in orbit) saw orange material, excavated by small craters on the southwestern rim of the Serenitatis basin. He suggested that this material might be related to the orange soil collected at the landing site a few days earlier.
Interestingly, one can detect subtle color differences on the Moon with telescopes and from spacecraft. Although the Moon appears gray at first glance, one notices different hues of gray in certain places. The dark Mare Tranquillitatis on the eastern near side is a noticeably darker and “bluish-gray” compared to the dark mare plains just to the north in Mare Serenitatis. Part of the reason the Moon looks whitish-gray in the sky can be attributed to the fact that it is the brightest object in the night sky – dazzling the eye when first looked at (either with your naked eye or through a telescope). Spacecraft views also reveal color differences. It is common practice for lunar scientists to work with “false color” composite images, where color variations are “stretched” to extreme degrees to exaggerate differences in order to make them easier to work with. The typical “false color” version of the near side of the Moon shows brilliantly colored “blue” and “red” maria; these color units do not coincide with mare-highland boundaries. The received wisdom is that the different color units in the lunar maria represent lava flows of differing composition. That some lavas are enriched in titanium was a major finding from the Apollo sample studies. Interestingly, these high-titanium lavas come from “blue” regions in the maria. Initially, this was only an empirical correlation but we now know that it is the presence of ilmenite (the iron-, titanium-rich oxide) in these basalts that makes them “blue.”
It should be noted that color differences on the Moon are extremely subtle, requiring intensive image processing to display them clearly. Typically, color differences on the Moon are less than about one percent or so. We are able to see these differences with a careful look, but mapping the detailed boundaries of individual lava flows requires image processing to make the “false color” composites.
The “true” color of the Moon is a brownish (i.e., reddish) gray, but overall, the surface is fairly neutral in tone. If the Earth had no atmosphere, hydrosphere or biosphere, it too would be largely a brownish-gray, as its crust is made up (more or less) of the same silicate and oxide minerals as the Moon (in slightly different proportions). It is the weathering effects of air and water and biological activity at the Earth’s surface that makes it so colorful. The Moon – having none of these processes – displays the “true color” of the rocky planets of the Solar System. The dominant mineral in the lunar crust is plagioclase, a calcium/aluminum-rich silicate mineral. Plagioclase is gray. Thus, the dusty surface of the Moon, derived from plagioclase-rich rocks, is likewise gray. When we talk about “red” and “blue” in lunar terms (as in “blue mare basalts”), we mean bluer, or less reddish, than comparable mare deposits elsewhere on the Moon. So in reality, lunar color differences are really just varying degrees of reddish gray, some more so than others.
And what of the blue Moon? As Conan the Barbarian might say, “But that is another story…..”
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