This spinning moon shows where debris from giant impacts fell

Most of the light-colored plains on the lunar surface point back to two huge impact basins

moon map

LUNAR LOOK  A new moon map, compiled using data from NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, is the most detailed global look yet at the moon’s light-colored plains (shaded green).

H. Meyer, L. Davis and N. Estes/LROC SOC-ASU

THE WOODLANDS, Texas — A new map of flat, light-colored streaks and splotches on the moon links the features to a few large impacts that spread debris all over the surface. The finding suggests that some of the moon’s history might need rethinking.

Planetary scientist Heather Meyer, now at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, used data from NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter to make the map, the most detailed global look at these light plains yet. Previous maps had been patched together from different sets of observations, which made it hard to be sure that features that looked like plains actually were.

Astronomers originally assumed that the light plains were ancient lava flows from volcanoes. But rocks brought back from one of these plains by Apollo 16 astronauts in 1972 did not have volcanic compositions. That finding led some scientists to suspect the plains, which cover about 9.5 percent of the lunar surface, came from giant impacts.

Meyer’s map supports the impact idea. Most of the plains, which are visible across the whole moon, seem to originate from debris spewed from the Orientale basin, a 930-kilometer-wide bowl in the moon’s southern hemisphere that formed about 3.8 billion years ago.

RAYS OF LIGHT Many light-colored, flat plains on the moon (shaded green) seem to have formed from debris spewed from an ancient giant impact in moon’s southern hemisphere, this video, based on Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter images, shows. Some smaller impact craters appear filled in with the material, potentially reshaping our understanding of the moon’s history.

“It looks like there’s just a giant splat mark,” Meyer says. About 70 percent of the lunar plains come from either Orientale or one other similar basin, she reported March 22 at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference. “What this is telling us,” she says, “is these large basins modified the entire lunar surface at some point.”

The map also shows that some small impact craters up to 2,000 kilometers from Orientale have been filled in with plains material. That’s potentially problematic, because planetary scientists use the number of small impact craters to estimate the age of the lunar surface. If small craters have been erased by an impact half a moon away, that could mean some of the surface is older than it looks, potentially changing scientists’ interpretations of the moon’s history (SN: 6/11/16, p. 10).

Lisa Grossman is the astronomy writer. She has a degree in astronomy from Cornell University and a graduate certificate in science writing from University of California, Santa Cruz. She lives near Boston.

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