New Analysis Shows the Moon Is Tectonically Active

Findings Published by Smithsonian Scientist Tom Watters
May 13, 2019
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Lunar Lobate Thrust Fault Scarp

This prominent lunar lobate thrust fault scarp is one of thousands discovered in Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC) images. The fault scarp or cliff is like a stair-step in the lunar landscape (left-pointing white arrows) formed when the near-surface crust is pushed together, breaks, and is thrust upward along a fault as the Moon contracts. Boulder fields,  patches of relatively high bright soil or regolith, are found on the scarp face and back scarp terrain (right-pointing arrows).

Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University/Smithsonian

Thousands of young cliff-like, fault scarps detected in images taken by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC) are evidence of a shrinking moon and recently active lunar faults. But just how recently these faults were active was not known. The Apollo astronauts placed seismometers on the moon that recorded shallow moonquakes, but the source of these quakes was also not known. New analysis of Apollo seismic data shows that some shallow moonquakes can be linked to young faults. This is evidence that the moon, like Earth, is tectonically active. The analysis is explained in “Shallow Seismic Activity and Young Thrust Faults on the Moon,” a paper by lead author and Smithsonian senior scientist Thomas R. Watters, published in the May issue of Nature Geoscience.

“It’s a great testament to the continued benefits of the Apollo program that seismic data collected over 40 years ago is helping to confirm that the moon is likely tectonically active today,” Watters said.  “The connection between the location and timing of shallow moonquakes and known young faults is further evidence that our moon is a dynamic world.”

The Apollo 11, 12, 14, 15 and 16 astronauts placed seismometers—instruments that measure the shaking produced by quakes—at their landing sites. Four of the seismometers operated from 1969 to 1977 and recorded 28 shallow moonquakes. Watters is lead author of the study that analyzed data from these seismometers using an algorithm, or mathematical program, developed to pinpoint quake locations detected by a sparse seismic network. The new analysis gave a better estimate of the moonquake locations.

Using the revised location estimates, the team found that eight of the 28 shallow quakes were within 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) of faults visible in lunar images. This is close enough to tentatively attribute the quakes to the faults, since modeling by the team shows that this is the distance over which strong seismic shaking is expected to occur, given the size of these fault scarps.

“We think it’s very likely that these eight quakes were produced by faults slipping as stress built up when the lunar crust was compressed by global contraction and tidal forces, indicating that the Apollo seismometers recorded the shrinking moon and the moon is still tectonically active,” Watters said.

Watters is a scientist in the Center for Earth and Planetary Studies at the National Air and Space Museum and a co-investigator on the LROC. The research was funded by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) mission, launched June 18, 2009. LRO is managed by NASA Goddard for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA headquarters in Washington.

The National Air and Space Museum building on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., is located at Sixth Street and Independence Avenue S.W. The museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center is located in Chantilly, Va., near Washington Dulles International Airport. Attendance at both buildings combined was 7.7 million in 2018, making it the most visited museum in America. The museum’s research, collections, exhibitions and programs focus on aeronautical history, space history and planetary studies. Both buildings are open from 10 a.m. until 5:30 p.m. every day (closed Dec. 25).

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