Lunar swirls, the mysterious light-colored patterns on the Moon’s surface, have puzzled scientists for decades. Visible even through backyard telescopes, these sinuous features stretch for hundreds of miles across the lunar landscape. They stand out as bright patches against the darker surroundings, sparking curiosity and debate among researchers about their origins.

Recent studies have provided new insights into the mystery of lunar swirls. These features are magnetized, meaning they possess magnetic fields strong enough to deflect solar wind particles. As these particles constantly bombard the Moon, they darken the surface through chemical reactions. However, the swirls, protected by their magnetic fields, remain light-colored.

One prevailing question remains: how did these swirls become magnetized? The Moon does not have a global magnetic field today, and no spacecraft has landed on a swirl to study it directly. Michael J. Krawczynski, an associate professor of earth, environmental, and planetary sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, and his team have been investigating this question through laboratory experiments. Krawczynski suggests that the magnetization could be due to underground magmas cooling in a magnetic field, rather than surface impacts from meteorites, which are rich in iron.

To test this hypothesis, Krawczynski and his team, including Yuanyuan Liang, who recently earned her PhD in earth, environmental, and planetary sciences, conducted experiments to replicate lunar conditions. They focused on ilmenite, a mineral abundant on the Moon, to see if it could become magnetized through specific reactions. Their experiments involved varying atmospheric chemistry and cooling rates to observe the effects on ilmenite.

On Earth, rocks often contain magnetite, a highly magnetic mineral, but the Moon lacks this mineral. Instead, ilmenite can react to form particles of iron metal, which can be magnetized. Krawczynski’s experiments revealed that smaller grains of ilmenite, with their larger surface area relative to volume, were more effective in generating strong magnetic fields. This finding supports the idea that under lunar conditions, subsurface magma could create the magnetizable material needed to produce the magnetic anomalies seen in lunar swirls.

These discoveries are crucial for understanding the processes that have shaped the Moon’s surface and its magnetic history. They also offer insights into how planetary and lunar surfaces interact with their space environments. As part of the ongoing exploration of the Moon, NASA plans to send a rover to the Reiner Gamma swirl region in 2025, as part of the Lunar Vertex mission. This mission aims to gather more data on these magnetic anomalies and further test theories about their origins.

Krawczynski emphasizes the importance of these findings, noting that if subsurface magma is responsible for the magnetic anomalies, it would need to contain high levels of titanium. Previous lunar samples from Apollo missions and lunar meteorites have shown hints of iron metal formation through similar reactions. However, those samples were from surface lava flows, not from cooling magma underground. Krawczynski’s study suggests that the cooling process underground could significantly enhance these metal-forming reactions.

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While drilling into the lunar surface to directly observe these processes remains out of reach, Krawczynski’s laboratory experiments provide a valuable method for testing and refining predictions. The experimental approach offers a glimpse into the possible interactions happening beneath the Moon’s surface, shedding light on the mysterious lunar swirls and their intriguing magnetic properties.

For now, researchers must rely on surface observations and laboratory simulations to unravel the secrets of these lunar features. As technology and exploration advance, future missions may finally provide the direct evidence needed to confirm these theories. Until then, the study of lunar swirls continues to inspire and challenge our understanding of the Moon’s dynamic and complex history.

Source: https://wustl.edu/

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