Mystery swirls on the moon hint at their magnetic secrets

The moon's "tattoos" may be tied to its volcanic and magnetic past.

Amanda Kooser
Freelance writer Amanda C. Kooser covers gadgets and tech news with a twist for CNET. When not wallowing in weird gear and iPad apps for cats, she can be found tinkering with her 1956 DeSoto.
Amanda Kooser
2 min read
Enlarge Image

This iconic lunar swirl is called Reiner Gamma.

NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University

A swirl of cream in a mug of hot chocolate. Tadpole-shaped. Striking. The diffuse appearance of abstract airbrush paintings. These are all phrases NASA has used to describe a famous lunar swirl named Reiner Gamma, one of a series of mysterious and exotic formations seen on the surface of the moon.

But there's no alien with an airbrush over there. Scientists already knew the lunar swirls coincide with locally elevated magnetic fields. A new study led by a team from Rutgers University and the University of California, Berkeley points to a deeper, volcanic-related understanding of the haunting surface features.

Researchers suspect magnetic anomalies are deflecting solar winds that can darken lunar soil, giving us the ethereal, tattoo-like swirls. The question is what causes those powerful magnetic fields. 

Enlarge Image

The Apollo 17 mission in 1972 helped scientists better understand the moon's ancient magnetic field. 

NASA/Eugene Cernan

The scientists created mathematical models for the geologic features that pointed to there being narrow magnetic objects near the lunar surface where the swirls are located. This coincides with the shape of lava tubes and dikes.

As placid as the moon seems now, it had a raucous volcanic past. 

Scientists discovered some of the lunar rocks brought back by the Apollo missions were magnetic. Experiments found those rocks became highly magnetic when heated to extreme temperatures in an oxygen-free environment. 

Rutgers says that magnetism is due to minerals breaking down and releasing metallic iron. "If there happens to be a strong enough magnetic field nearby, the newly formed iron will become magnetized along the direction of that field," the university notes.

The researchers combined that knowledge of moon rocks with a study published last year that found the moon's now-gone magnetic field lasted over 1 billion years longer that scientists previously thought. 

This means the lava tubes and dikes formed by volcanic activity on the moon could have become very magnetic as they chilled out. We now have a good potential explanation for those scenic lunar swirls.

"No one had thought about this reaction in terms of explaining these unusually strong magnetic features on the moon," said study co-author Sonia Tikoo from Rutgers. "This was the final piece in the puzzle of understanding the magnetism that underlies these lunar swirls." 

Taking the next step in exploring these ideas would involve a much closer look at the lunar swirls. 

Last year, NASA considered a concept for an ambitious tethered CubeSat mission that would dangle a mini-satellite near the moon's surface. Meanwhile, Tikoo is on a committee that's proposing to send a lunar rover to study the swirls. 

The researchers published their findings in the Journal of Geophysical Research.

Memorable moon photos from NASA and beyond (pictures)

See all photos

Taking It to Extremes: Mix insane situations -- erupting volcanoes, nuclear meltdowns, 30-foot waves -- with everyday tech. Here's what happens.

Fight the Power: Take a look at who's transforming the way we think about energy.