The Purloined Lunar Crater

Bad Astronomy
The entire universe in blog form
Oct. 9 2013 8:00 AM

The Purloined Lunar Crater

The Moon is our inconstant companion; always changing its face, always changing its position in the sky. But to be fair it’s always there, somewhere, and always predictable.

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

Or is it? While reading up on a small (180 meter, or 200 yard diameter) crater on the Moon’s far side, I got quite a surprise. I bet you will too.

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First, here’s the crater in question:

lunar crater
A football-stadium sized crater on the far side of the Moon. Click to impactenate.

Photo by NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University

Lovely, isn’t it? The shot was taken by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter when it was directly over the crater. Not only that, the Sun was almost directly overhead. That means there are no shadows, so the crater itself looks soft and difficult to see. The rough surface in the middle is studded with boulders, some as big as cars or small trucks.

The ejecta blanket — the dust and rock thrown out by the blast of the impact — is quite bright and obvious. This means the crater is young; lunar dust darkens over time from the erosive effects of the Sun and micrometeorite impacts. Why, it may only be a few million years old!

That high Sun angle makes the ejecta even more obvious, too, because it highlights brightness changes in the surface. Dust with a higher albedo (the fraction of sunlight it reflects) is easier to spot, and the newer dust is more reflective than the older surface.

But there’s something else going on here as well. Because there are no shadows, changes in topography — hills and dips — are more difficult to see, hiding some features. Don’t believe me? Then check out this next LRO picture taken of the same spot, but when the Sun was at a much lower angle:

lunar crater
Seriously, it really is the same crater. Click to edgarallanpoenate.

Photo by NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University

Yes, that’s really the same spot! I scaled and cropped the picture to roughly match the one above; if you look carefully you can match up some smaller craters around the edges. As you can see, there’s a second crater about the same size as the first one that’s almost completely hidden in the first picture. Now that you know it’s there, you can see hints of it in the first shot; the ejecta rays (plumes of material that collapsed down into long, linear features) curve when they cross the hidden crater. Other than that, though, you’d be forgiven for saying it’s not there at all. It helps that the crater is clearly (well, in the second picture) much older; the very slow erosion process on the Moon has softened its features; it may be billions of years old.

Amazing. An ancient crater, hidden on the Moon in plain sight. Obviously, if you want to study the Moon, you can’t just take a picture and think you’re seeing the whole thing. It’s critical to wait a while and look again. The Moon may be an inconstant companion, but perhaps that’s not such a bad thing if you want to learn more about it.

[Note: While poking around for this article, I found one I wrote back in 2006 titled “The Purloined Crater”; this was about an impact crater hidden in plain sight… on Earth! And not-too-coincidentally, it too was spotted in images taken by an orbiting camera.]