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Thursday, December 6, 2012

GRAIL's Gravity Tour of the Moon

Variations in the lunar gravity field
This image shows the variations in the lunar gravity field as measured by NASA's Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) during the primary mapping mission from March to May 2012.

The gravitational field of the Moon has been determined by the tracking of radio signals emitted by orbiting spacecraft. The principle used depends on the Doppler effect, whereby the line-of-sight spacecraft acceleration can be measured by small shifts in frequency of the radio signal, and the measurement of the distance from the spacecraft to a station on Earth. Since the gravitational field of the Moon affects the orbit of a spacecraft, it is possible to use these tracking data to invert for gravity anomalies. However, because of the Moon's synchronous rotation it is not possible to track spacecraft much over the limbs of the Moon, and the far-side gravity field is thus only poorly characterized. The gravitational acceleration on the surface of the Moon is 1.6249 m/s2, about 16.7% that on Earth's surface (it means 1/6 of Earth gravity). Over the entire surface, the gravity variation is about is ~0.0253 m/s2 (1.6% of the gravity acceleration). Because weight is directly dependent upon gravitational acceleration, things on the Moon will weigh only 16.7% of what they weigh on the Earth.
Gravity acceleration at the surface of the Moon in m/s2. Near side on the left, far side on the right. Map from Lunar Gravity Model 2011
The major characteristic of the Moon's gravitational field is the presence of mascons, which are large positive gravity anomalies associated with some of the giant impact basins. These anomalies greatly influence the orbit of spacecraft about the Moon, and an accurate gravitational model is necessary in the planning of both manned and unmanned missions. They were initially discovered by the analysis of Lunar Orbiter tracking data, since navigation tests prior to the Apollo program experienced positioning errors much larger than mission specifications.
The origin of mascons are in part due to the presence of dense mare basaltic lava flows that fill some of the impact basins. However, lava flows by themselves cannot explain the entirety of the gravitational variations, and uplift of the crust-mantle interface is required as well. Based on Lunar Prospector gravitational models, it has been suggested that some mascons exist that do not show evidence for mare basaltic volcanism. The huge expanse of mare basaltic volcanism associated with Oceanus Procellarum does not possess a positive gravity anomaly.

This movie shows the variations in the lunar gravity field as measured by NASA's Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) during the primary mapping mission from March to May 2012. Very precise microwave measurements between two spacecraft, named Ebb and Flow, were used to map gravity with high precision and high spatial resolution. The field shown resolves blocks on the surface of about 12 miles (20 kilometers) and measurements are three to five orders of magnitude improved over previous data. Red corresponds to mass excesses and blue corresponds to mass deficiencies. The map shows more small-scale detail on the far side of the moon compared to the nearside because the far side has many more small craters. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MIT/GSFC
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