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The Great Lunar Fire Fountain Mystery

by Judith E Braffman-Miller

posted in Reference and Education

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Earth's Moon is our planet's only natural satellite, as well as one of the largest moons in our entire Solar System. It is also the largest moon relative to the size of its host planet. Born about 4.5 billion years ago, not long after Earth's formation, our Moon is the largest object in the night sky, and it casts a bewitching, bewildering, and lovely reflected golden fire into the blackness above Earth, as it dances in a midnight sea of shining stars. In August 2015, astronomers announced that they have discovered lingering traces of carbon in volcanic orange and green glass beads collected from the Apollo missions of the late 1960s and early 1970s. This finding may not only explain the great lunar fire fountain mystery, it may also shed new light on the possibility that some volatile elements on Earth and its enchanting closest companion in space, share a common origin.
The very tiny beads of volcanic glass, that were found on our Moon's surface by the Apollo astronauts, are clues indicating that fire fountain eruptions occurred on the ancient Moon's surface.
Astronomers from Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island and the Carnegie Institution for Science in Baltimore, Maryland have identified the volatile gas that caused those primordial eruptions.
Fire fountains are a type of eruption that occur very often on Earth, especially in Hawaii. In order for fire fountains to erupt, they require the presence of volatiles mixed in with the fiery, erupting lava. Volatile compounds morph into gas as the lavas ooze up from the depths beneath. The expansion that is caused by the gas forces the lava to burst into the air once it reaches the surface. This has been compared to taking the lid off of a shaken bottle of sparkling, bubbly soda.
"The question for many years was what gas produced these sorts of eruptions on the Moon. The gas is gone, so it hasn't been easy to figure out," commented Dr. Alberto Saal in an August 24, 2015 Brown University Press Release. Dr. Saal is an associate professor of earth, environmental, and planetary sciences at Brown and a corresponding author of the new research.
Earth's Closest Companion
Earth's Moon has historically been the inspiration for strange and haunting myths, folktales, and poetry. It is a very ancient symbol for femininity, as well as for madness and romantic love. There are certain traditional folktales and children's stories that tell of a man's face sketched out on its bright surface that reflects the light of our Sun like a golden mirror in the darkness of night. Other tales tell lovely and magical stories of a "Moon Rabbit" whose shape is also traced out on the bewitching lunar surface. Fantasy, magic, mythology and madness aside, Earth's Moon is a very real world. It has been with Earth almost from the very beginning, when our Solar System was still in the process of forming, about 4.56 billion years ago. It is also the only body beyond our planet that we have walked upon, leaving our footprints in its alien dust as a silent testimony that we once were there.
Earth's Moon is in synchronous rotation with our planet; always showing us the same face--its "near side" that is splotched with dark volcanic maria (Latin for "seas"). The maria are scattered abundantly between the ancient, bright crustal highlands and the prominent craters formed by impacting objects from space. Earth's Moon is the second-brightest regularly visible object in our sky--after our Sun--as measured by its illumination on our planet's surface. Even though it can haunt our night sky as a very bright and white sphere, in reality its surface is dark, with a reflectance that is only a bit higher than that of asphalt.
The Moon's gravitational tugs produce ocean tides on Earth, as well as a slight lengthening of our day. Currently, our Moon's orbital distance is about thirty times the diameter of our planet, which causes it to show an apparent size in the sky that is almost the same as that of our Sun. Therefore, the Moon is able to cover the Sun almost completely during a solar eclipse--even though our Sun is actually considerably larger than the Moon, but much further away. Therefore, this matching of apparent visual size is really a coincidence.
The Soviet Union's Luna program was the very first to reach the Moon with an unmanned spacecraft in 1959. The United States' NASA Apollo program achieved the only manned missions to the lunar surface so far, beginning with the first manned lunar orbiting mission by Apollo 8 in 1968, and a half-dozen manned lunar landings between 1969 and 1972, with the first being Apollo 11. These missions brought back to Earth more than 380 kg of moon rocks, which have proven to be extremely valuable, enabling scientists to develop a geological understanding of the Moon's mysterious origin, the formation of its internal structure, and its history. After the Apollo 17 mission in 1972, the Moon has only been visited by unmanned spacecraft.
More than 100 moons orbit the eight major planets of our Solar System. Most of them are icy, small denizens of the outer Solar System, circling the giant gaseous planets Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. These distant, frozen little moons contain only a small amount of rocky material. In stark and dramatic contrast, the inner region of our Solar System is almost completely devoid of moons. Of the quartet of relatively small, rocky terrestrial planets--Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars--Mercury and Venus are completely moon-less, and Mars is circled by a pair of extremely small, lumpy, deformed moons named Phobos and Deimos. Astronomers think that Phobos and Deimos are probably wandering exiles from the Main Asteroid Belt, situated between Mars and Jupiter, that were captured by the Red Planet's gravitational pull very long ago when our Solar System was young. Earth's own lovely, mesmerizing Moon is the largest one inhabiting this inner kingdom of small, rocky worlds that bask in our Star's brilliant and fiery heat.
A moon is defined as a natural satellite that circles around another body that, in turn, circles around its star. A moon is kept in this position both by its own gravity and by its host's gravitational pull. Some planets have moons; some do not. Several asteroids are known to possess tiny moons of their own, and some dwarf planets--such as the ice dwarf Pluto--also are circled by moons. Pluto's largest moon, Charon, is about 50% the size of Pluto itself. Because Charon is about half the size of Pluto, the icy duo are often considered to be a double planet.
Earth's Moon is thought to have been born as the result of a monumental, ancient collision between our planet and a mysterious Mars-size protoplanet named Theia. This Giant Impact Theory is currently the most likely explanation for how our Moon came into being. When the tragedy that was Theia crashed into the primordial Earth billions of years ago, the violent impact is thought to have launched part if our planet's crust into space. This primordial collision tossed a profusion of sparkling, somersaulting, bright little moonlets into our ancient planet's sky, and some of this material was ultimately trapped in orbit around our Earth about 4.5 billion years ago, where it was finally squeezed together by gravity into a sphere, to become our Moon.
The Great Lunar Fire Fountain Mystery
The research paper that sheds new light on the great Lunar Fire Fountain Mystery, is published online in the August 24, 2015 issue of the journal Nature Geoscience, and it explains that lava from the Moon's fire fountains contains large amounts of the element carbon. As it drifts up from the lunar interior, that carbon mixes itself up with oxygen to create substantial quantities of carbon monoxide (CO) gas. That CO gas is apparently the elusive culprit behind the mysterious fire fountains that tossed out myriads of volcanic glass beads over large portions of the lunar surface.
For a very long time, Earth's Moon was erroneously believed to be completely bereft of volatiles like carbon and hydrogen. In fact, it was not until the beginning of the 21st century that volatiles were at long last definitely detected in lunar samples. In 2008, Dr. Saal and his team spotted water in the lunar volcanic beads of glass. They followed up on their discovery with detections of chlorine, fluorine, and sulfur. While it became obvious that Earth's Moon was not as completely depleted of volatiles as astronomers once thought, none of the volatiles that had been detected were consistent with the mysterious fire fountain eruptions. If water had been the driving force, for example, there should be mineralogical signatures in the samples. There were none.
For their study, Dr. Saal and his colleagues carefully analyzed the glass beads that had been carried back to Earth by the astronauts of the Apollo 15 and 17 missions. The team of scientists paid special attention to samples that harbored melt inclusions, tiny droplets of molten magma that had been captured and trapped within crystals of olivine. The crystals snared gases that were present in the magma before they were able to escape.
Even though other volatiles had been spotted earlier in the lunar volcanic glasses and melt inclusions, the measurement of carbon remained undetermined because of the high detection limits of the available analytical techniques. Dr. Erik Hauri from the Carnegie Institution for Science developed a more sophisticated ion probe technique that successfully reduced the detection limits of carbon by two orders of magnitude. That permitted a measurement of as low as 0.1 part per million!
"This breakthrough depended on the ability of Carnegie's NanoSIMS ion probe to measure incredibly low levels of carbon, on objects that are the diameter of a human hair. It is really a remarkable achievement both scientifically and technically," Dr. Hauri explained in the August 24, 2015 Brown University Press Release.
The scientists carefully studied the melt inclusions using secondary ion spectroscopy. Then they performed calculations that showed that the samples initially harbored 44 to 64 parts per million carbon. Having finally spotted the elusive carbon, the researchers then created a theoretical model of how gases would flee from lunar magna at various depths and pressures, calibrated from the results derived from high-pressure laboratory experiments. For a long time, this model had been used by scientists for studies of our own Earth. Dr. Saal and this team altered several parameters to match the conditions and composition affecting lunar magma.
The new model revealed that carbon, as it mixes with oxygen to form CO gas, would have degassed before the other volatiles.
"Most of the carbon would have degassed under the surface. Other volatiles like hydrogen degassed later, when the magma was much closer to the surface and after the lava began breaking up into small globules. That suggests carbon was driving the process in its early stages," Dr. Saal explained in the August 24, 2015 Brown University Press Release.
In addition to providing a potential solution to the perplexing mysteries surrounding the lunar fire fountains, the new findings also serve as still more evidence that some volatile reservoirs in the lunar interior share a common origin with reservoirs on Earth, the scientists continued to explain.
The quantity of carbon detected in the melt inclusions was found to be very similar to the quantity of carbon seen in basalts erupted at Earth's mid-ocean ridges. Dr. Saal and his colleagues had previously demonstrated that Earth and its lovely Moon have similar concentrations of water and other volatiles. They have also demonstrated that hydrogen isotope ratios from lunar samples are similar to that of Earth.
If reservoirs of volatiles on our planet and its Moon do share a common source, this would have implications for understanding lunar origins. According to the Giant Impact Theory, debris from the primordial crash between Earth and Theia accreted to form our Moon.
"The volatile evidence suggests that either some of Earth's volatiles survived that impact and were included in the accretion of the Moon or that volatiles were delivered to both the Earth and Moon at the same time from a common source--perhaps a bombardment of primitive meteorites," Dr. Saal explained in the August 24, 2015 Brown University Press Release.
About the Author: Judith E. Braffman-Miller is a writer and astronomers whose articles have been published since 1981 in various magazines, newspapers, and journals. Although she has written on a variety of topics, she particularly loves writing about astronomy because it gives her the opportunity to communicate to others the many wonders of her field. Her first book, "Wisps, Ashes, and Smoke," will be published soon.
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