Of Time and the Moon

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Science  30 Jul 1971:
Vol. 173, Issue 3995, pp. 383-392
DOI: 10.1126/science.173.3995.383


Considerable information concerning lunar chronology has been obtained by the study of rocks and soil returned by the Apollo 11 and Apollo 12 missions. It has been shown that at the time the moon, earth, and solar system were formed,∼4.6 ∼ 109 years ago, a severe chemical fractionation took place, resulting in depletion of relatively volatile elements such as Rb and Pb from the sources of the lunar rocks studied. It is very likely that much of this material was lost to interplanetary space, although some of the loss may be associated with internal chemical differentiation of the moon.

It has also been shown that igneous processes have enriched some regions of the moon in lithophile elements such as Rb, U, and Ba, very early in lunar history, within 100 million years of its formation. Subsequent igneous and metamorphic activity occurred over a long period of time; mare volcanism of the Apollo 11 and Apollo 12 sites occurred at distinctly different times, 3.6 ∼ 109 and 3.3 ∼ 109 years ago, respectively. Consequently, lunar magmatism and remanent magnetism cannot be explained in terms of a unique event, such as a close approach to the earth at a time of lunar capture. It is likely that these phenomena will require explanation in terms of internal lunar processes, operative to a considerable depth in the moon, over a long period of time. These data, together with the low present internal temperatures of the moon, inferred from measurements of lunar electrical conductivity, impose severe constraints on acceptable thermal histories of the moon.

Progress is being made toward understanding lunar surface properties by use of the effects of particle bombardment of the lunar surface (solar wind, solar flare particles, galactic cosmic rays). It has been shown that the rate of micrometeorite erosion is very low (angstroms per year) and that lunar rocks and soil have been within approximately a meter of the lunar surface for hundreds of millions of years.

Future work will require sampling distinctly different regions of the moon in order to provide data concerning other important lunar events, such as the time of formation of the highland regions and of the mare basins, and of the extent to which lunar volcanism has persisted subsequent to the first third of lunar history. This work will require a sufficient number of Apollo landings, and any further cancellation of Apollo missions will jeopardize this unique opportunity to study the development of a planetary body from its beginning. Such a study is fundamental to our understanding of the earth and other planets.