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After Water its Iron > The Indian Chandrayaan-1 Miracle


Jan 17, 2009

The Moon Is Rusting, and Researchers Want to Know Why

Hematite (Fe2O3) is a common oxidization product on Earth, Mars, and some asteroids. Although oxidizing processes have been speculated to operate on the lunar surface and form ferric iron–bearing minerals, unambiguous detections of ferric minerals forming under highly reducing conditions on the Moon have remained elusive. Our analyses of the Moon Mineralogy Mapper data show that hematite, a ferric mineral, is present at high latitudes on the Moon, mostly associated with east- and equator-facing sides of topographic highs, and is more prevalent on the nearside than the farside. Oxygen delivered from Earth’s upper atmosphere could be the major oxidant that forms lunar hematite. Hematite at craters of different ages may have preserved the oxygen isotopes of Earth’s atmosphere in the past billions of years. Future oxygen isotope measurements can test our hypothesis and may help reveal the evolution of Earth’s atmosphere.

While our Moon is airless, research indicates the presence of hematite, a form of rust that normally requires oxygen and water. That has scientists puzzled.

Mars has long been known for its rust. Iron on its surface, combined with water and oxygen from the ancient past, give the Red Planet its hue. But scientists were recently surprised to find evidence that our airless Moon has rust on it as well.

A new paper in Science Advances reviews data from the Indian Space Research Organization's Chandrayaan-1 orbiter, which discovered water ice and mapped out a variety of minerals while surveying the Moon's surface in 2008. Lead author Shuai Li of the University of Hawaii has studied that water extensively in data from Chandrayaan-1's Moon Mineralogy Mapper instrument, or M3, which was built by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. Water interacts with rock to produce a diversity of minerals, and M3 detected spectra - or light reflected off surfaces - that revealed the Moon's poles had a very different composition than the rest of it.

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Intrigued, Li homed in on these polar spectra. While the Moon's surface is littered with iron-rich rocks, he nevertheless was surprised to find a close match with the spectral signature of hematite. The mineral is a form of iron oxide, or rust, produced when iron is exposed to oxygen and water. But the Moon isn't supposed to have oxygen or liquid water, so how can it be rusting?

Metal Mystery

The mystery starts with the solar wind, a stream of charged particles that flows out from the Sun, bombarding Earth and the Moon with hydrogen. Hydrogen makes it harder for hematite to form. It's what is known as a reducer, meaning it adds electrons to the materials it interacts with. That's the opposite of what is needed to make hematite: For iron to rust, it requires an oxidizer, which removes electrons. And while the Earth has a magnetic field shielding it from this hydrogen, the Moon does not.

"It's very puzzling," Li said. "The Moon is a terrible environment for hematite to form in." So he turned to JPL scientists Abigail Fraeman and Vivian Sun to help poke at M3's data and confirm his discovery of hematite.

"At first, I totally didn't believe it. It shouldn't exist based on the conditions present on the Moon," Fraeman said. "But since we discovered water on the Moon, people have been speculating that there could be a greater variety of minerals than we realize if that water had reacted with rocks."

After taking a close look, Fraeman and Sun became convinced M3's data does indeed indicate the presence of hematite at the lunar poles. "In the end, the spectra were convincingly hematite-bearing, and there needed to be an explanation for why it's on the Moon," Sun said.


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