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Physics LibreTexts

9: Cratered Worlds

The Moon is the only other world human beings have ever visited. What is it like to stand on the surface of our natural satellite? And what can we learn from going there and bringing home pieces of a different world?

We begin our discussion of the planets as cratered worlds with two relatively simple objects: the Moon and Mercury. Unlike Earth, the Moon is geologically dead, a place that has exhausted its internal energy sources. Because its airless surface preserves events that happened long ago, the Moon provides a window on earlier epochs of solar system history. The planet Mercury is in many ways similar to the Moon, which is why the two are discussed together: both are relatively small, lacking in atmospheres, deficient in geological activity, and dominated by the effects of impact cratering. Still, the processes that have molded their surfaces are not unique to these two worlds. We shall see that they have acted on many other members of the planetary system as well.

  • 9.1: General Properties of the Moon
    Most of what we know about the Moon derives from the Apollo program, including 400 kilograms of lunar samples still being intensively studied. The Moon has one-eightieth the mass of Earth and is severely depleted in both metals and volatile materials. It is made almost entirely of silicates like those in Earth’s mantle and crust. However, more recent spacecraft have found evidence of a small amount of water near the lunar poles, most likely deposited by comet and asteroid impacts.
  • 9.2: The Lunar Surface
    The Moon, like Earth, was formed about 4.5 billion year ago. The Moon’s heavily cratered highlands are made of rocks more than 4 billion years old. The darker volcanic plains of the maria were erupted primarily between 3.3 and 3.8 billion years ago. Generally, the surface is dominated by impacts, including continuing small impacts that produce its fine-grained soil.
  • 9.3: Impact Craters
    A century ago, Grove Gilbert suggested that the lunar craters were caused by impacts, but the cratering process was not well understood until more recently. High-speed impacts produce explosions and excavate craters 10 to 15 times the size of the impactor with raised rims, ejecta blankets, and often central peaks. Cratering rates have been roughly constant for the past 3 billion years but earlier were much greater. Crater counts can be used to derive approximate ages for geological features.
  • 9.4: The Origin of the Moon
    The three standard hypotheses for the origin of the Moon were the fission hypothesis, the sister hypothesis, and the capture hypothesis. All have problems, and they have been supplanted by the giant impact hypothesis, which ascribes the origin of the Moon to the impact of a Mars-sized projectile with Earth 4.5 billion years ago. The debris from the impact made a ring around Earth which condensed and formed the Moon.
  • 9.5: Mercury
    Mercury is the nearest planet to the Sun and the fastest moving. Mercury is similar to the Moon in having a heavily cratered surface and no atmosphere, but it differs in having a very large metal core. Early in its evolution, it apparently lost part of its silicate mantle, probably due to one or more giant impacts. Long scarps on its surface testify to a global compression of Mercury’s crust during the past 4 billion years.
  • 9.E: Cratered Worlds (Exercises)

Thumbnail: Because there is no atmosphere, ocean, or geological activity on the Moon today, the footprints you see in the image will likely be preserved in the lunar soil for millions of years (credit: modification of work by NASA/ Neil A. Armstrong).