'Man in the Moon' gets a new origin story

Many have assumed the craters roughly forming the shape of a human face on the moon's surface were formed by space rocks, but new research supports the claim that it came from within our only natural satellite.

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Eric Mack
3 min read

Three different views of the Man in the Moon. NASA/Colorado School of Mines/MIT/JPL/Goddard Space Flight Center

There's a scientific debate underway about the origins of perhaps the most visible man around, and no, it has nothing to do with a certain president's birth certificate. For many years, researchers have reached different conclusions about what formed the feature often referred to as the "Man in the Moon," and this week new NASA data supports the theory that magma from within the moon itself, not an asteroid strike, created that famous face.

Scientists know the dark, vaguely face-like basin as the Procellarum region that stretches nearly 1,800 miles in diameter.

Researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Colorado School of Mines and other institutions used gravity data from NASA's GRAIL probes that orbited the moon in 2012 to create a map of the Procellarum region that showed the rims of the basin are actually more angular than circular or elliptical, as one would expect from an asteroid impact.

This led the team to explore a less cosmically confrontational origin story for our biggest satellite's largest persona.

"Instead of a central circular gravity anomaly like all other impact basins, at Procellarum we see these linear features forming this huge rectangle," said Jim Head, a Professor of Geological Sciences at Brown University and one of the authors of the new paper, in a release. "This shape argues strongly for an internal origin and suggests internal forces."

Those internal forces could have been a plume of magma that rose to the surface, then cooled and contracted, creating formations that could easily be misidentified as impact craters.

"How such a plume arose remains a mystery," said Professor Maria Zuber of MIT in another release. "It could be due to radioactive decay of heat-producing elements in the deep interior. Or, conceivably, a very early large impact triggered the plume. But in the latter case, all evidence for such an impact has been completely erased. People who thought that all this volcanism was related to a gigantic impact need to go back and think some more about that."

That's the equivalent of an academic smackdown against those from the asteroid impact origin story camp, like the authors of a 2012 paper in Nature Geoscience who analyzed the composition of the rock in the basin to support the notion of an ancient impact crater.

But if it's true that the Man in the Moon is really the product of cooling lava many eons ago, it also affects the work of the late J.R.R. Tolkein (yes, the "Lord of the Rings" and "Hobbit" guy) who once wrote in a poem titled "The Man In The Moon Came Down Too Soon" that the guy up there once chose to abandon his lunar post because "in his heart he longed for Fire."

Perhaps it's poetic license that Tolkein's man in the moon may have longed for that which he was created from, or maybe it's just one of those ironies that comes after the fact from greater understanding through science. I imagine that if the Man in the Moon were to leave, it would be because he finally got sick of being blasted by asteroids, something that continued to happen after he was formed, regardless of which origin story you believe.