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Mysterious rocks may unlock secrets of the Moon's magnetic history 

An international research team led by Dr. Ottaviano Rüsch from the University of Münster has identified anomalous meter-sized Moon rocks, which are covered in uniquely reflective dust, potentially indicating magnetic anomalies. This revelation sheds new light on the understanding of lunar crust formation and changes.

The Moon, unlike Earth, is enveloped in sharp-edged, electrostatically charged dust, a subject of study since the Apollo missions of the late 1960s. 

Unusual reflective properties 

Dr. Rüsch’s team identified a few lunar boulders with a layer of dust exhibiting unusual reflective properties. The dust reflects sunlight distinctively, differing from that on previously known rocks. The findings are crucial for comprehending the processes shaping the Moon’s crust.

The Moon’s magnetism 

The study, fueled by interest in the lunar surface’s magnetic anomalies, particularly near the Reiner Gamma region, delves into uncharted territory regarding the Moon’s magnetism. Dr. Rüsch highlighted the importance of these new rocks in understanding the Moon’s magnetic history and core. 

“Current knowledge of the Moon’s magnetic properties is very limited, so these new rocks will shed light on the history of the Moon and its magnetic core,” said Dr. Rüsch. “For the first time, we have investigated the interactions of dust with rocks in the Reiner Gamma region – more precisely, the variations in the reflective properties of these rocks. For example, we can deduce to what extent and in which direction the sunlight is reflected by these large rocks.” 

Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter images

The team analyzed images from NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter to study the interaction of dust with rocks, focusing on variations in the rocks’ reflective properties. The research was initially focused on identifying cracked rocks. 

Utilizing artificial intelligence, the team sifted through approximately one million images from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, searching for fractured rocks. 

130,000 intriguing rocks 

“Modern data processing methods allow us to gain completely new insights into global contexts – at the same time, we keep finding unknown objects in this way, such as the anomalous rocks that we are investigating in this new study,” explained Valentin Bickel from the University of Bern’s Center for Space and Habitability.

The algorithm pinpointed around 130,000 intriguing rocks, with half undergoing detailed examination. 

Strange interaction with light

“We recognized a boulder with distinctive dark areas on just one image. This rock was very different from all the others, as it scatters less light back towards the sun than other rocks. We suspect that this is due to the particular dust structure, such as the density and grain size of the dust,” said Dr. Rüsch. 

“Normally, lunar dust is very porous and reflects a lot of light back in the direction of illumination. However, when the dust is compacted, the overall brightness usually increases. This is not the case with the observed dust-covered rocks,” noted Marcel Hess from TU Dortmund University.

Ongoing research 

The team’s discovery is still in its early stages, with ongoing research focused on understanding the dust’s properties and its interaction with the rocks. Upcoming studies will explore processes like electrostatic dust lifting and solar wind interaction with local magnetic fields.

This discovery is timely, as NASA plans to deploy an automatic rover to the Reiner Gamma region in the coming years to seek similar boulders. A deeper understanding of lunar dust movement is not only academically significant but also practical, assisting in future human settlement planning on the Moon. 

The challenges posed by lunar dust, as experienced by Apollo astronauts in habitat and equipment contamination, highlight the importance of these studies in preparing for extended human presence on the Moon.

The study is published in the Journal of Geophysical Research Planets

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