Introduction of a new planet

The more force you hit something – a ball, a nut, a geode – the more likely it is to open. Or, if it doesn’t open, at least loses some of its structural integrity, the way baseball players kick new gloves to make them softer and more flexible. Cracks, massive or tiny, form and are the silent and permanent witness of the impact.

Study how these impacts affect planetary bodies, asteroids, moons and other rocks in space helps planetary scientists, including Associate Professor Brandon Johnson and Postdoctoral Researcher Sean Wiggins in the College’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences of Science at Purdue University, understanding extraplanetary geology, especially where to search for valuable materials such as water, ice, and even, potentially, microbial life.

Every solid body in the solar system is constantly being hammered by impacts, large and small. Even on Earth, every stage has been affected by at least three major impacts. Using the moon as a test subject, Johnson, Wiggins and their team set out to quantify the relationship between impacts and a planet’s porosity.

Researchers used extensive lunar gravity data and detailed modeling and discovered that when large objects strike the moon or any other planetary body, this effect can affect surfaces and structures, even very far from the impact position and deep within the planet or The moon itself. The discovery, detailed in their new study published in the journal Mother Nature Communications, explains existing data on the moon that had puzzled scientists. The research was partially funded by NASA’s Lunar Data Analysis Program.

“NASA’s GRAIL (Gravity Recovery and Inside Laboratory) mission measured gravity of the moon and showed that the lunar crust is very porous at very great depths,” Johnson said. “We didn’t have a description of how the moon would become so porous. This is the first work that really shows that large impacts are capable of fracturing the lunar crust and introducing this porosity.”

Understanding where planets and moons have fractures, and why, can help guide space exploration and tell scientists where the best place to look for life is. Wherever rock, water and air meet and interact, there is the potential for life.

“There are plenty of reasons to be excited” , said Wiggins. “Our data explains a mystery. This research has implications for early Earth and for Mars. If life existed back then, there were these big, intermittent impacts that would sterilize the planet and boil the oceans. But if you had life that could survive in pores and interstices a few hundred meters or even a few kilometers deep, it could have survived and provided those refuges where life could hide from those kinds of impacts.

“These discoveries have great potential to guide future missions to Mars or elsewhere. This can help guide searches, tell us where to look.”

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