"When we combined that with lunar topography data from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, we discovered the unexpectedly large amount of mass hundreds of miles underneath the South Pole-Aitken basin", James explained.
A unusual large mass of material has been detected under the Moon's largest crater and may contain metal from an asteroid that crashed into the lunar surface and formed the crater, according to a Baylor University study.
Scientists studying the moon have made an unexpected discovery.
When it comes to the South Pole-Aitken basin, the topography is particularly striking. Now, researchers believe the crater, which forms a huge basin on the far side of the Moon near its south pole, is hiding something.
James is one of a handful of U.S. scientists who announced their discovery in a study published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters. The South Pole-Aitken basin is the oldest crater on the Moon - it's covered with newer, smaller impact scars, but still clearly visible. At about 2,000 km wide the South Pole-Aitken basin is the largest crater known to scientists, with the newly-discovered mass underneath it being large enough to affect the moon's gravity. Beneath this basin lies a unusual anomaly-an excess of mass extending at least 300 kilometers down, more than 10 times the depth of the Earth's crust. According to the published study, "Plausible sources for this anomaly include metal from the core of a differentiated impactor or oxides from the last stage of magma ocean crystallization", which hypothesizes the moon's surface was once a molten liquid ocean of magma. Combining the two, the Baylor team was able to find the mass that is "weighing the basin floor downward by more than half a mile". Larger variations helped tease out information about the moon's core, and subtler ones revealed unseen mineral deposits, asteroid impact sites, and subsurface features.
The team ran complicated computer simulations of large asteroid impacts which suggested that - under the right conditions - an asteroid which had an iron-nickel core could have dispersed into the moon's upper mantle during an impact.
"We did the math and showed that a sufficiently dispersed core of the asteroid that made the impact remain suspended in the moon's mantle until the present day, rather than sinking to the moon's core", said James.
Alternatively, the mass might be a dense region caused by the Moon's magma ocean solidifying as our satellite cooled and aged. There's still much to learn about the ancient and complex geology of the area, which marks a key event in the Moon's tumultuous history. "Lunar samples suggest that most of the major basins on the moon formed around 3.9 billion years ago in a period called the late heavy bombardment", according to NASA.
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