ScienceDaily (July 26, 2011) — Analysis of new images of a curious "hot spot" on the far side of the Moon reveal it to be a small volcanic province created by the upwelling of silicic magma. The unusual location of the province and the surprising composition of the lava that formed it offer tantalizing clues to the Moon's thermal history.The hot spot is a concentration of a radioactive element thorium sitting between the very large and ancient impact craters Compton and Belkovich that was first detected by Lunar Prospector's gamma-ray spectrometer in 1998. The Compton-Belkovich Thorium Anomaly, as it is called, appears as a bull's-eye when the spectrometer data are projected onto a map, with the highest thorium concentration at its center.
Recent observations, made with the powerful Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) optical cameras, have allowed scientists to distinguish volcanic features in terrain at the center of the bull's-eye. High-resolution three-dimensional models of the terrain and information from the LRO Diviner instrument have revealed geological features diagnostic not just of volcanism but also of much rarer silicic volcanism.
The volcanic province's very existence will force scientists to modify ideas about the Moon's volcanic history, says Bradley Jolliff, PhD, research professor in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, who led the team that analyzed the LRO images.
Volcanism on the Moon
Lunar volcanism is very different from terrestrial volcanism because the Moon is a small body that cooled quickly and never developed rock-recycling plate tectonics like those on our planet.
The Moon, thought to have been created when a Mars-size body slammed into Earth about 4.5 billion years ago, was originally a hellish world covered by a roiling ocean of molten rock some 400 kilometers deep.
But because the Moon was small and had no atmosphere, the magma ocean cooled quickly, within perhaps 100 million years. Eventually lighter minerals such as feldspar crystallized out of the magma and floated to the top to create huge masses of feldspathic rock that formed the lunar highlands. Denser iron- and magnesium-rich minerals sank when they crystallized, forming the upper part of the Moon's mantle.
The differentiation of the crust and mantle was followed by a wave of volcanic activity between about 3 to 4 billion years ago, when basaltic lavas erupted on the lunar surface, filling old impact craters and other low spots to form the lunar mare.
One of the mysteries of lunar volcanism is the unequal distribution of these flood basalts. Nearly a third of the Moon's near side is covered by ancient flood basalts but the Moon's far side, where the crustal rocks are thicker, has much less.
Moreover, almost all of the volcanism on the Moon is basaltic rather than silicic, enriched in minerals containing the elements iron and magnesium rather than the elements silicon and aluminum.
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