When the Chinese Chang’e-5 lunar spacecraft returned to Earth last December, it brought with it the first sample of moon rocks collected in more than 40 years. An international team of researchers have worked hard to analyze part of this precious sample and have discovered that it contains some of the youngest lunar volcanic material discovered to date.
The research team found that the sample was around 1.97 billion years old. Although the moon is volcanically inactive today, over its 4.5 billion year history it has had significant volcanic activity that shaped its development, such as lava that flowed across its surface and formed lava tubes below the surface.
Knowing the exact date of the sample is important in order to accurately date the geological history of the moon in absolute terms. “Planetary scientists know that the more craters there are on a surface, the older it is; the fewer craters, the younger the surface. It’s a nice relative determination, ”said one of the researchers, Brad Jolliff of the University of Washington in St. Louis, in a statement. “But to put absolute age dates on that, you have to have samples of those surfaces.”
Previous volcanic samples from the moon, like those collected during the Apollo missions, were over 3 billion years old. And the researchers were able to date the impact craters, where the moon was struck by asteroids or comets, to be less than a billion years old. But there was a gap between these two periods which is now closed.
“In this study, we got a very specific age around 2 billion years, plus or minus 50 million years,” Jolliff said. “It’s a phenomenal result. In terms of planetary time, this is a very precise determination. And that is enough to distinguish the different formulations of the timeline.
This understanding is not only helpful in learning more about the moon. It can also tell us about rocky planets in our solar system and beyond. “The Apollo samples gave us a number of surfaces that we were able to date and correlate with crater densities,” Jolliff explained. “This chronology of craters has been extended to other planets – for example, for Mercury and Mars – to say that surfaces with a certain density of craters are of a certain age.”
The results are published in the journal Science.
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