Describing Lunar Evolution

    Gilbert suggested that scientists could determine the relative age of surface features by studying the ejecta of the Imbrium impact. That suggestion was the key to unraveling the history of the moon. Gilbert recognized that the moon is a complex body that was built up by innumerable impacts over a long period.

    In his book The Face of the Moon (1949), the American astronomer and physicist Ralph B. Baldwin further described lunar evolution. He noted the similarity in form between craters on the moon and bomb craters created during World War II (1939-1945) and concluded that lunar craters form by impact.

    Baldwin did not say that every lunar feature originated with an impact. He stated correctly that the maria are solidified flows of basalt lava, similar to flood lava plateaus on Earth. Finally, independently of Gilbert, he concluded that all circular maria are actually huge impact craters that later filled with lava.

    In the 1950's, the American chemist Harold C. Urey offered a contrasting view of lunar history. Urey said that, because the moon appears to be cold and rigid, it has always been so. He then stated -- correctly -- that craters are of impact origin. However, he concluded falsely that the maria are blankets of debris scattered by the impacts that created the basins. And he was mistaken in concluding that the moon never melted to any significant extent. Urey had won the 1934 Nobel Prize in chemistry and had an outstanding scientific reputation, so many people took his views seriously. Urey strongly favored making the moon a focus of scientific study. Although some of his ideas were mistaken, his support of moon study was a major factor in making the moon an early goal of the U.S. space program.

    In 1961, the U.S. geologist Eugene M. Shoemaker founded the Branch of Astrogeology of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). Astrogeology is the study of celestial objects other than Earth. Shoemaker showed that the moon's surface could be studied from a geological perspective by recognizing a sequence of relative ages of rock units near the crater Copernicus on the near side. Shoemaker also studied the Meteor Crater in Arizona and documented the impact origin of this feature. In preparation for the Apollo missions to the moon, the USGS began to map the geology of the moon using telescopes and pictures. This work gave scientists their basic understanding of lunar evolution.

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