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Lunar mound made by unique type of volcanism

Researchers offer new origin stories for the moon's Mafic Mound.

By Brooks Hays
A topographic map of the moon's South Pole-Aitken Basin, with dark blues and purples revealing the lowest elevations and reds showcasing the highest. Mafic Mound's tallest point is the red circle in the middle. Photo by NASA/Goddard
A topographic map of the moon's South Pole-Aitken Basin, with dark blues and purples revealing the lowest elevations and reds showcasing the highest. Mafic Mound's tallest point is the red circle in the middle. Photo by NASA/Goddard

PROVIDENCE, R.I., Oct. 15 (UPI) -- According to scientists at Brown University, a distinct type of volcanic activity -- not seen elsewhere on the moon -- is responsible for Mafic Mound, a geologic feature found on the lunar south pole.

Mafic Mound rises more than 2,600 feet from the middle of South Pole-Aitken Basin, a massive impact crater. The mound stretches nearly 50 miles across.

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The South Pole-Aitken Basin is largest impact crater in the solar system, measuring 1,600 miles in diameter and eight miles deep.

Researchers at Brown believe the collision that created the massive impact crater set in a motion a unique type of volcanism that eventually spawned Mafic Mound.

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To better understand how Mafic Mound might have formed, Brown scientists collected and analyzed topographical, gravitational and chemical data collected by a variety of lunar space missions. The numbers suggest two possibilities.

Both assume the impact melted a significant portion of the moon's mantle. In one scenario, the molten sheet recrystalizes and shrinks. As it does, the still-soft middle is pushed like a tube of toothpaste. In the second scenario, the impact expels enough rock to create a region of low gravity, allowing the malleable mantle to rebound upward, setting off an eruption that forms the mound.

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Researchers shared the two scenarios in a new paper published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

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"If the scenarios that we lay out for its formation are correct, it could represent a totally new volcanic process that's never been seen before," lead study author Daniel Moriarty, a Ph.D. student in Brown's Department of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences, said in a press release.

Moriarty says the ongoing research could great benefit from new mantle samples from the South Pole-Aitken Basin, but it may be some time before a lunar mission returns to the crater.

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