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The Moon hosts one of the largest intact craters within the Solar System, known as the South Pole-Aitken Basin, found on the Moon’s far side. This region is at the heart of several key research projects. India’s inaugural lunar lander is targeting this area, the Artemis 3 mission plans to send humans to the South Pole, and notably, astronomers discovered a significant mass anomaly beneath the surface in 2019.

Planetary scientists have identified an underground structure weighing roughly 2.18 quintillion kilograms and extending over 300 kilometers (186 miles) deep. It is believed that this mass may consist of metal from the asteroid that created the crater.

“Imagine burying a pile of metal five times larger than the Big Island of Hawaii underground. That’s about the scale of the unexpected mass we found,” said lead researcher Peter B. James from Baylor University.

This discovery was made possible by data from NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) mission, which tracks minute variations in the Moon’s gravitational field to reveal details about its internal structure. The measured mass is significant enough to depress the basin floor by nearly a kilometer (more than half a mile). Considering the crater spans approximately 2,500 kilometers (1,550 miles) in diameter, the gravitational pull is substantial.

“Combining this with lunar topography data from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, we found a massive amount of mass buried deep under the South Pole-Aitken basin,” explained James. “It’s possible that the metal from the asteroid that created the crater is still lodged in the Moon’s mantle.”

Simulations run by the team suggest that the asteroid might have remained embedded in the mantle after the impact around 4 billion years ago, instead of sinking to the core. Another theory suggests that as the Moon’s magma ocean cooled and solidified, dense oxides concentrated and settled, contributing to this anomaly.

The South Pole-Aitken Basin’s allure for space agencies lies in its uniqueness as a site for understanding the Moon’s internal composition and geological history. It serves as an ideal natural laboratory for examining the effects of a massive impact on a rocky planet’s surface.

Additionally, recent announcements revealed the discovery of a substantial heat-emitting mass under the Compton and Belkovich craters on the Moon’s far side, indicating that the South Pole is not the only region with intriguing sub-surface structures.

The study was published in Geophysical Research Letters.

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