Date: 12 Nov 2013

On the chronology of lunar origin and evolution

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Abstract

An origin of the Moon by a Giant Impact is presently the most widely accepted theory of lunar origin. It is consistent with the major lunar observations: its exceptionally large size relative to the host planet, the high angular momentum of the Earth–Moon system, the extreme depletion of volatile elements, and the delayed accretion, quickly followed by the formation of a global crust and mantle.

According to this theory, an impact on Earth of a Mars-sized body set the initial conditions for the formation and evolution of the Moon. The impact produced a protolunar cloud. Fast accretion of the Moon from the dense cloud ensured an effective transformation of gravitational energy into heat and widespread melting. A “Magma Ocean” of global dimensions formed, and upon cooling, an anorthositic crust and a mafic mantle were created by gravitational separation.

Several 100 million years after lunar accretion, long-lived isotopes of K, U and Th had produced enough additional heat for inducing partial melting in the mantle; lava extruded into large basins and solidified as titanium-rich mare basalt. This delayed era of extrusive rock formation began about 3.9 Ga ago and may have lasted nearly 3 Ga.

A relative crater count timescale was established and calibrated by radiometric dating (i.e., dating by use of radioactive decay) of rocks returned from six Apollo landing regions and three Luna landing spots. Fairly well calibrated are the periods ≈4 Ga to ≈3 Ga BP (before present) and ≈0.8 Ga BP to the present. Crater counting and orbital chemistry (derived from remote sensing in spectral domains ranging from γ- and x-rays to the infrared) have identified mare basalt surfaces in the Oceanus Procellarum that appear to be nearly as young as 1 Ga. Samples returned from this area are needed for narrowing the gap of 2 Ga in the calibrated timescale. The lunar timescale is not only used for reconstructing lunar evolution, but it serves also as a standard for chronologies of the terrestrial planets, including Mars and possibly early Earth.

The Moon holds a historic record of Galactic cosmic-ray intensity, solar wind composition and fluxes and composition of solids of any size in the region of the terrestrial planets. Some of this record has been deciphered. Secular mixing of the Sun was constrained by determining 3He/4He of solar wind helium stored in lunar fines and ancient breccias. For checking the presumed constancy of the impact rate over the past ≈3.1 Ga, samples of the youngest mare basalts would be needed for determining their radiometric ages.

Radiometric dating and stratigraphy has revealed that many of the large basins on the near side of the Moon were created by impacts about 4.1 to 3.8 Ga ago. The apparent clustering of ages called “Late Heavy Bombardment (LHB)” is thought to result from migration of planets several 100 million years after their accretion.

The bombardment, unexpectedly late in solar system history, must have had a devastating effect on the atmosphere, hydrosphere and habitability on Earth during and following this epoch, but direct traces of this bombardment have been eradicated on our planet by plate tectonics. Indirect evidence about the course of bombardment during this epoch on Earth must therefore come from the lunar record, especially from additional data on the terminal phase of the LHB. For this purpose, documented samples are required for measuring precise radiometric ages of the Orientale Basin and the Nectaris and/or Fecunditatis Basins in order to compare these ages with the time of the earliest traces of life on Earth.

A crater count chronology is presently being built up for planet Mars and its surface features. The chronology is based on the established lunar chronology whereby differences between the impact rates for Moon and Mars are derived from local fluxes and impact energies of projectiles. Direct calibration of the Martian chronology will have to come from radiometric ages and cosmic-ray exposure ages measured in samples returned from the planet.