The most detailed map of the moon's geology ever released may help astronauts explore the lunar surface

NASA/GSFC/USGSUnified Geologic Map of the Moon with shaded topography from the Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter (LOLA.
  • The US Geologic Survey (USGS) just released the most detailed map ever of moon’s surface features and geology as a spinning 3D moon.
  • The map shows brightly coloured spots on the lunar surface, representing different ages of the geological features.
  • The map unifies six separate maps of the moon’s topography for the most accurate and in-depth visual of the moon ever.
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We only ever see one side of the moon and, most nights, only parts of it are visible.

But this week, scientists released one of the most detailed maps of the moon ever created.

The new map, born out of the United States Geological Survey (USGS), combines six other static, geologic maps of different sides of the moon. A video version even lets you see all the data as an animated globe:

USGS Geological map of the moonNASA/GSFC/USGSThis animation shows a rotating globe of the new Unified Geologic Map of the Moon with shaded topography.

The brightly coloured spots on the moon’s surface are different moon surface features. Each unique kind of feature – crater rim crests, buried crater rim crests, fissures, grabens, scarps, mare wrinkle ridges, faults, troughs, rilles, and lineaments – is labelled with its official name.

The colours represent the approximate age and type of features:

  • Copernican (yellows) – 1.1 billion years ago to the present day
  • Eratosthenian (greens) – 3.16 billion to 1.1 billion years ago
  • Imbrian (purples, blues, and pinks) – 3.85 billion to 3.16 billion years ago
  • Nectarian (oranges and tans) – 3.92 billion to 3.85 billion years ago
  • pre-Nectarian (browns) – 4.5 billion years ago (around when the moon was formed) to 3.92 billion years ago

The new animation and high level of detail in it are important for two reasons: They can help astronauts figure out how best to land on, manoeuvre around, and explore the moon during missions, and can help geologists learn more about the moon’s ancient history.

Below is a zoomed-in part of the moon. It depicts the southwestern corner of the lunar lava-plain known as the “Sea of Tranquility,” where Apollo 11, the first moon landing, took place with Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong in July 1969.

USGSA close-up of the moon.

Studying the surface of the moon to land there

This map is a 1:5,000,000 scale. The topographical measurements were taken by the US’ Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter (LOLA) and by Japan’s SELENE Kaguya terrain camera stereo. These new measurements were used to unify and enhance six different geologic maps of all of the different sides of the moon from 2013.

Two-dimensional, static geologic maps can appear to distort the actual features from the spherical moon.

Having a more accurate view of the moon’s topography gives astronomers greater insight into its origins. Because the moon has no winds, rivers, or plate tectonics – weathering that can alter or even erase ancient activity – many geologic features shown were made deep in the lunar past.

Understanding the surface of the moon allows geologists to learn more about the early history of our solar system. The chemical composition of these rocks and craters also helps scientists see what the Earth’s early chemical composition was, helping understand how life was first formed.

The USGS has been mapping other planets in our solar system, as well. The agency has published maps of at least parts of every rocky planet, and several smaller rocky or icy bodies – including Europa, where NASA hopes to look for signs of alien life.

Europa map 2NASA/Erin Leonard, Alex Patthoff, and Dave Senske, building on work by Ron Greeley, Thomas Doggett and Melissa BunteThe geologic map of Europa, the smallest of Jupiter’s four moons.

High-quality maps of the moon also enable safe lunar landings. In turn, astronauts can collect precious samples of lunar rocks and further our knowledge about Earth’s closest celestial companion.

NASA is planning a big return to the moon with a plan called Artemis. Though the goal is to land the first woman and the next man on the surface in 2024, delays with an upcoming rocket system and limited budget threaten to delay and limit its ambitious goals.

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