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Volcanoes Reveal Lunar Eruptions Long-Lived

A 'supermoon' seen in May 2012, one of the most stunning skywatching sights. Credit: Andrew Fazekas
A “supermoon” in May 2012 boasts dark patches on the lunar surface, the so-called man in the moon, formed from volcanism that perhaps continued until only a few million years ago. Courtesy of Andrew Fazekas

Astronomers are moonstruck! The man in the moon, we learned just last week, formed from dark flowing lava over three billion years ago, instead of a long supposed giant asteroid impact.

Now, we learn that same volcanism may have kept on erupting until surprisingly recent times.

High-resolution imagery of the entire moon’s surface from NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter reveals clear evidence of 70 small lava features covering the dark lunar plains.

Each rounded mound appears to measure about 0.3 miles (500 meters) across, making them too small to be visible from Earth, according to the report released by the journal Nature Geoscience.

This map shows the near-side of the moon and marks all the bizarre volcanic structures discovered in this new study.  Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University
This map shows the near-side of the moon and marks all the bizarre volcanic structures discovered in this new study. Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University

The Arizona State University discovery team managed to date these bizarre features by determining the size and age of small craters scattered in the same region. The results shocked the scientists because it counters the existing theories that lunar volcanism died out several billion years ago. Instead it likely shut off only within the past 50 million years, they suggest.

“The existence and young age of the irregular mare patches provides a new constraint for models of the lunar interior’s thermal evolution,” said study lead author Sarah Braden, formerly of Arizona State University, in a press statement.

“Our understanding of the Moon is drastically changed by the evidence for volcanic eruptions at ages much younger than previously thought possible, and in multiple locations,” Braden said.

See For Yourself

While these tiny volcanic mounds are not visible with even the largest telescopes here on Earth, we can clearly observe the evidence for all the volcanism that created the moon that we know today.

Even without a telescope or a pair of binoculars, a sightseeing tour of the lunar orb is easy.

When you look up at the moon you see a bright and dark regions. The bright areas are the ancient crust leftover from the moon’s formation, and the dark areas are the relatively newer, smooth plains that formed from all that lava that erupted from the interior. These dark plains are what are called maria, Latin for “seas.”

This illustration shows the names of the large marias as seen from Earth. Credit: Peter Freiman & Background photograph by Gregory H. Revera
This illustration shows the names of the large marias as seen from Earth. Credit: Peter Freiman & Background photograph by Gregory H. Revera

Together, the light and dark regions arrange themselves into the popular face of the “man in the moon.” They were interpreted as a “rabbit in the moon” by the Maya and Aztecs of ancient Mexico, as well as the Mimbres Indians of the southwestern United States, showing the moon’s fascination for cultures worldwide.

The small volcanoes seen in the new study litter the dark maria, which cover about 16 percent of the lunar surface. The little volcanoes, says the study, are “excellent candidates for future exploration, including sample return missions.” Such sample returns would allow for radioactive dating of the rocks, allowing them to confirm the relatively young ages suggested from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter observations.

Until then, we can at least enjoy the moon from Earth, and wonder what other surprises are in store up there.

Follow Andrew Fazekas, the Night Sky Guy, on Twitter, Facebook, and his website.


    October 21, 2014, 2:17 am

    I think these enigmatic or INA like features on the Moon could have formed due to gas escape from the interior of the Moon during recent times as put forward by Dr. Schultz et al. in 2006 (Nature)

  2. Dennis Michael King II
    Los Angeles
    October 16, 2014, 2:03 am

    I enjoy the National Geographic society but hardly believe this is new information or better yet even close to being accurate. You or anyone else has no real way of accurately dating the moon or even earth for that matter. There’s many theories as to how the moon formed and what you should really be talking about is the elements found on the moon that you rarely find here on earth such as helium III. I’m sure the world would love to know.

  3. Reet Kamal Tiwari
    October 15, 2014, 7:31 am

    This news has been flashing widely all over the world from past few days that our Moon which is believed to be internally dead for about a billion years was active and showed the sign of volcanism within the past 100 million years ago. These findings were presented in the research paper titled “Evidence for basaltic volcanism on the Moon within the past 100 million years” by a group of scientists from Arizona State University, Arizona, USA and Institut für Planetologie, Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster, Germany. This excellent article was published on 12th October 2014 in well journal ‘Nature Geoscience’.

    Our group forms India which comprises of scientists and students from ‘Physical Research Laboratory’ (PRL) Ahmedabad and Indian Institute of Technology Roorkee, Roorkee have been advocating the active nature of Moon from long back. Our first paper was published in journal ‘Planetary and Space Science’ on October 2013. This paper presented the topographical, morphological and spectral reflectance studies for a distinct resurface event inside Lowell crater (13.0°S 103.4°W), Orientale basin, using high resolution TC, MI-VIS, LROC-NAC, and M3 data from Kaguya (JAXA), Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (NASA) and Chandrayaan-1 missions. The area showed possibly the most beautiful flow features ever discovered on the Moon and based upon integrated evidences from all three missions it was stated in the paper that the area shows signs of recent volcanism just ~ 2- 10 Ma ago (even younger than the one published in Nature Geosciences by the other group).
    After this we have found some very strong another set of evidences in the same region. This comprises of striking multiple superposed viscous flows. We examined the morphological details and topographic characteristics, which clearly indicated that they were recent volcanic flows. We tried to publish this article in journals like Nature and Nature Geoscience but at that time reviewers (probably the US Lunar Scientists) does not find our argument enthralling for publication of this research article. Eventually, we published our article in Indian Science journal ‘Current Science’.
    And very interestingly our topic was ‘Evidences of relatively new volcanic flows on the Moon’ which seems close to the recent published article by the other group. This article was published on 10th August 2014. This article advocated the presence of relatively young volcanic flows on the surface of the moon.

    The main point writing all this to you is that we have been long saying this active nature of Moon but the new paper which has been published in the Nature Geoscience does not cite any of our works.

    See how the research and ideas from India are concealed.
    Hope the Indian contribution about the active nature of moon will be highlighted with time.

  4. snewsom2997
    October 14, 2014, 12:18 pm

    I would imagine that it takes quite a long time, for the heat generated by the original impact that created the moon, to bleed off in a vacuum.

  5. Edü Denali
    New York City
    October 13, 2014, 11:35 am

    I’m so fascinated by this. I’ve always wondered what’s up there and what other secrets are hidden on The Moon.
    And I also questioned why the governments on Earth stopped going there, at least that’s what we assume.
    I think it’s time to go back and reopen this chapter of our history.

  6. Kevin Bomberry
    October 13, 2014, 6:20 am

    Why is debris from Apollo missions,that was left on the moon,not visible from earth?