Moon had a magnetic field for at least a billion years longer than thought

An analysis of an Apollo rock suggests two ways such a small body generated its field


HEATED PAST  From around 4.25 billion years ago to at least as late as 2.5 billion years ago, the moon had a magnetic field, which dwindled in strength over time, a new study finds.

Goddard Space Flight Center/NASA

The moon had a magnetic field for at least 2 billion years, or maybe longer.

Analysis of a relatively young rock collected by Apollo astronauts reveals the moon had a weak magnetic field until 1 billion to 2.5 billion years ago, at least a billion years later than previous data showed. Extending this lifetime offers insights into how small bodies generate magnetic fields, researchers report August 9 in Science Advances. The result may also suggest how life could survive on tiny planets or moons.

“A magnetic field protects the atmosphere of a planet or moon, and the atmosphere protects the surface,” says study coauthor Sonia Tikoo, a planetary scientist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. Together, the two protect the potential habitability of the planet or moon, possibly those far beyond our solar system.

The moon does not currently have a global magnetic field. Whether one ever existed was a question debated for decades (SN: 12/17/11, p. 17). On Earth, molten rock sloshes around the outer core of the planet over time, causing electrically conductive fluid moving inside to form a magnetic field. This setup is called a dynamo. At 1 percent of Earth’s mass, the moon would have cooled too quickly to generate a long-lived roiling interior.

moon rock
MOON ROCK Researchers analyzed samples of this moon rock, collected by Apollo 15 astronauts, to expand the timescale of how long the moon’s magnetic field lasted. NASA
Magnetized rocks brought back by Apollo astronauts, however, revealed that the moon must have had some magnetizing force. The rocks suggested that the magnetic field was strong at least 4.25 billion years ago, early on in the moon’s history, but then dwindled and maybe even got cut off about 3.1 billion years ago.

Tikoo and colleagues analyzed fragments of a lunar rock collected along the southern rim of the moon’s Dune Crater during the Apollo 15 mission in 1971. The team determined the rock was 1 billion to 2.5 billion years old and found it was magnetized. The finding suggests the moon had a magnetic field, albeit a weak one, when the rock formed, the researchers conclude.

A drop in the magnetic field strength suggests the dynamo driving it was generated in two distinct ways, Tikoo says. Early on, Earth and the moon would have sat much closer together, allowing Earth’s gravity to tug on and spin the rocky exterior of the moon. That outer layer would have dragged against the liquid interior, generating friction and a very strong magnetic field (SN Online: 12/4/14).

Then slowly, starting about 3.5 billion years ago, the moon moved away from Earth, weakening the dynamo. But by that point, the moon would have started to cool, causing less dense, hotter material in the core to rise and denser, cooler material to sink, as in Earth’s core. This roiling of material would have sustained a weak field that lasted for at least a billion years, until the moon’s interior cooled, causing the dynamo to die completely, the team suggests.

The two-pronged explanation for the moon’s dynamo is “an entirely plausible idea,” says planetary scientist Ian Garrick-Bethell of the University of California, Santa Cruz. But researchers are just starting to create computer simulations of the strength of magnetic fields to understand how such weaker fields might arise. So it is hard to say exactly what generated the lunar dynamo, he says.

If the idea is correct, it may mean other small planets and moons could have similarly weak, long-lived magnetic fields. Having such an enduring shield could protect those bodies from harmful radiation, boosting the chances for life to survive.

Ashley Yeager is the associate news editor at Science News. She has worked at The Scientist, the Simons Foundation, Duke University and the W.M. Keck Observatory, and was the web producer for Science News from 2013 to 2015. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and a master’s degree in science writing from MIT.

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