WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind., March 17 (UPI) -- One of the largest craters on the moon was only recently discovered, thanks to the hard work of scientists at Purdue University. The crater's discovery was announced on Monday at the annual Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Texas.
There, the crater's discoverers offered a preliminary name, the Earhart crater, in honor of aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart, the first female aviator to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean.
"This is one of the biggest craters on the moon, but no one knew it was there," explained researcher leader Jay Melosh, a distinguished professor of Earth, atmospheric and planetary sciences at Purdue. "Craters are named after explorers or scientists, and Amelia Earhart had not yet received this honor. She attempted a flight around the world, and we thought she deserved to make it all the way to the moon for inspiring so many future explorers and astronauts."
How did one of the largest lunar craters go unnoticed and unnamed for so long? Most of it wasn't visible from the surface.
Though a sliver of the crater is visible, most of it is buried beneath new lunar material. Researchers only discovered its size and scope after analyzing data collected as part of NASA's Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory, or GRAIL, mission. The GRAIL mission has enabled scientists to map out the moon's varying densities in greater detail than ever before.
Scientists happened upon the portion of the crater that's only barely visible at surface level while zooming in on GRAIL data in an effort to study smaller features like ridges and valleys.
"The feature turned out to be the rim of an ancient crater, but it was so big we did not even recognize it as that at first," said Rohan Sood, a graduate student in Purdue's School of Aeronautics and Astronautics. "We were zoomed in on one little piece of it. We first tried to model it as a small crater, but we had to go bigger and bigger and bigger to match what the data was telling us."
For now, the crater's honorary name is unofficial. All planet and planetary feature names must be submitted and approved by the International Astronomical Union.
Earhart wasn't exactly chosen out of the blue. Her connection to Purdue is well established. The groundbreaking aviator served as a student career counselor and adviser in Purdue's Department of Aeronautics from 1935 to 1937, and the university maintains the world's largest archives of Earhart-related papers and artifacts.