Mass concentration (astronomy)

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Topography (top) and corresponding gravity (bottom) signal of lunar Mare Smythii containing a significant mascon.

In astronomy and astrophysics, a mass concentration (or mascon) is a region of a planet or moon's crust that contains a large positive gravitational anomaly. In general, the word "mascon" can be used as a noun to describe an excess distribution of mass on or beneath the surface of a planet (with respect to some suitable average), such as Hawaii.[1] However, this term is most often used to describe a geologic structure that has a positive gravitational anomaly associated with a feature (e.g. depressed basin) that might otherwise have been expected to have a negative anomaly, such as the "mascon basins" on the Moon.

Typical examples of mascon basins on the Moon are the Imbrium, Serenitatis, Crisium and Orientale impact basins, all of which possess prominent topographic lows and positive gravitational anomalies. Examples of mascon basins on Mars include the Argyre, Isidis, and Utopia basins. Theoretical considerations imply that a topographic low in isostatic equilibrium would exhibit a slight negative gravitational anomaly. Thus, the positive gravitational anomalies associated with these impact basins indicate that some form of positive density anomaly must exist within the crust or upper mantle that is currently supported by the lithosphere. One possibility is that these anomalies are due to dense mare basaltic lavas, which might reach up to 6 kilometers in thickness for the Moon. However, while these lavas certainly contribute to the observed gravitational anomaly, uplift of the crust-mantle interface is also required to account for its magnitude. Indeed, some mascon basins on the Moon do not appear to be associated with any signs of volcanic activity. Theoretical considerations in either case indicate that all the lunar mascons are super-isostatic (that is, supported above their isostatic positions). The huge expanse of mare basaltic volcanism associated with Oceanus Procellarum does not possess a positive gravitational anomaly.

Effect on satellite orbits[edit]

The lunar mascons alter the local gravity in certain regions sufficiently that low and uncorrected satellite orbits around the Moon are unstable on a timescale of months or years. This acts to distort successive orbits, causing the satellite to ultimately impact the surface.

The Luna-10 orbiter was the first artificial object to orbit the moon and it returned tracking data indicating that the lunar gravitational field caused larger than expected perturbations presumably due to 'roughness' of the lunar gravitational field.[2] The Lunar mascons were discovered by Paul M Muller and William L Sjogren of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in 1968[3] from a new analytic method applied to the highly precise navigation data from the unmanned pre-Apollo Lunar Orbiter spacecraft. This discovery observed the consistent 1:1 correlation between very large positive gravity anomalies and depressed circular basins on the moon. This fact places key limits on models attempting to follow the history of the moon's geological development and explain the current lunar internal structures.

At that time, one of NASA's highest priority "tiger team" projects was to explain why the Lunar Orbiter spacecraft being used to test the accuracy of Project Apollo navigation were experiencing errors in predicted position of ten times the mission specification (2 kilometers instead of 200 meters). This meant that the predicted landing areas were 100 times as large as those being carefully defined for reasons of safety. Lunar orbital effects principally resulting from the strong gravitational perturbations of the MASCONS were ultimately revealed as the cause. William Wollenhaupt and Emil Schiesser of the NASA Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston then worked out the "fix"[citation needed] that was first applied to Apollo 12 and permitted its landing within 163 meters of the target, the previously-landed Surveyor 3 spacecraft.[4]

In May 2013 a NASA study was published with results from the twin GRAIL probes, that mapped mass concentrations on Earth's moon.[5]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

Cited references

  1. ^ Richard Allen. "Gravitational Constraints (Lecture 17)". Berkeley course: Physics of the Earth and Planetary Interiors. p. 9. Retrieved 2009-12-25. 
  2. ^ "Luna 10 (NASA)". 
  3. ^ Paul Muller and William Sjogren (1968). "Mascons: lunar mass concentrations". Science 161 (3842): 680–684. Bibcode:1968Sci...161..680M. doi:10.1126/science.161.3842.680. PMID 17801458. 
  4. ^ "Encyclopedia Astronautica : Apollo 12". 
  5. ^ Chow, Denise. "Mystery of Moon's Lumpy Gravity Explained". SPACE.com. Retrieved 31 May 2013. 

General references