When we gaze at the Moon’s surface, we often focus on its grey, pockmarked complexion. However, if we were to turn a telescope towards our planet’s neighboring satellite, we would be able to observe bright patches blemishing its surface. These peculiar features, known as lunar swirls, have captured the curiosity of scientists since they were first discovered in the 1600s. Despite extensive research, light-colored regions like the well-known Reiner Gamma swirl remain a mystery.

A recent study conducted by scientists at Stanford University and Washington University in St. Louis (WUSL) has shed light on a new explanation for the origin of lunar swirls. Unlike Earth, the Moon does not possess a global magnetic field to protect it from the Sun’s charged particles. As a result, when solar winds collide with the lunar surface, they cause the rocks to darken over time due to chemical reactions. However, certain areas on the Moon are shielded by mini magnetic fields, leading to the preservation of light-shaded swirls within these regions.

Previous studies have proposed that micrometeorite impacts on the Moon could create local magnetic fields that deflect solar winds and give rise to lunar swirls. However, researchers at Stanford and WUSL challenge this hypothesis. They suggest that an alternative force has magnetized the swirls, deflecting solar wind particles. According to planetary scientist Michael Krawczynski, impacts alone may not be sufficient to explain the formation of these magnetic anomalies.

One intriguing theory posited by Krawczynski and his colleagues is the role of forces beneath the Moon’s crust in generating magnetic anomalies. Evidence of flowing molten rock just below the lunar surface indicates a period of volcanic activity billions of years ago. Using a model of magma cooling rates, researchers have theorized that the presence of ilmenite, a titanium-iron oxide mineral abundant on the Moon, could induce magnetization. Under specific conditions, the slow cooling of ilmenite might stimulate metallic iron and iron-nickel alloys within the Moon’s crust, producing a formidable magnetic field associated with lunar swirls.

While much of our current understanding of the Moon’s localized magnetic fields is derived from orbiting spacecraft, there is much to be learned by directly examining the lunar surface. NASA’s planned Lunar Vertex mission in 2025, which includes sending a rover to the Reiner Gamma swirl, aims to provide crucial insights into the mystery of lunar swirls. By drilling into the Moon’s surface, scientists hope to gather definitive evidence that will unravel the secrets of these enigmatic bright patches. In the years to come, we may finally have the answers needed to solve the enduring puzzle of lunar swirls.

Space

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