Samples from China mission show Moon ‘active’ more recently than thought

BEIJING (AFP) – The first lunar rocks brought back to Earth in decades show the Moon was volcanically active more recently than previously thought, Chinese scientists said yesterday.

A Chinese spacecraft carried lunar rocks and soil to Earth last year – humanity’s first mission in four decades to collect samples from the Moon, and a milestone for Beijing’s growing space programme.

The samples included basalt from 2.03 billion years ago, scientists found, pushing the last known date of volcanic activity on the moon closer to the present day by as much as 900 million years.

Analysis of the samples “reveals that the Moon’s interior was still evolving at around two billion years ago”, the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) said in a statement.

Previous moon rocks brought back by the United States and Soviet missions showed evidence of lunar activity up to 2.8 billion years ago, but left a gap in scientists’ knowledge about the more recent history of Earth’s natural satellite as they were from older parts of the lunar surface.

China Academy of Sciences academician and Institute of Geology and Geophysics researcher Li Xianhua at a press conference in Beijing. PHOTO: AFP

The Chang’e-5 mission – named after a mythical moon goddess – collected two kilogrammes of samples from a previously unexplored area of the moon called Mons Ruemker in the Oceanus Procellarum or “Ocean of Storms”. The area was selected as it was thought by scientists to be more recently formed, based on the lower density of craters from meteors on its surface.

The latest findings – published in three papers in the Nature journal yesterday – open up new questions for scientists trying to decipher the history of the Moon.

“How did the Moon sustain volcanic activity for so long? The Moon is naturally small and should disperse heat quickly, or so the thinking goes,” CAS researcher Li Xianhua, an author of the studies, told reporters.

The Chang’e 5 samples marked a major step for the Chinese space programme, which has sent a rover to Mars and landed another craft on the far side of the Moon.