A guest Image of the Week this week as Roberto Bugiolacchi, Moon Zoo Science lead, updates us on the Apollo 17 project.
The MoonZoo science team would like to extend a gigantic thank you to all 20,627 users who contributed in counting craters (and more!) relating to the Apollo 17 landing site (Taurus-Littrow)!
Let’s ponder on some astonishing numbers: to date, around 8.5 million craters in total have been marked by MoonZoo citizen scientists, with around 670,000 (~8%) relating to the A17 region (from 21 selected NAC images, Figure 1); further, 3.3% (22,063) of these craters have been classified as containing boulders and 6.9% (45,893) were found to be non-circular.Figure 1. On the left we see the MoonZoo users crater input. Different colours relate to different NAC images basemaps. On the right we see the A17 landing site (red dot) and the astronauts exploration paths and stations.
Our next step is to compare your input with the ‘expert’ count looking to validate and quantify your contributions. The ‘expert’ in question is a professional lunar scientist who has published research including the statistical occurrence of impact craters on planetary surfaces. The logical assumption is that given a more or less constant collision rate of interplanetary bodies (asteroids and comets), a surface will carry the record of impact products (craters and pits) as a function of time, i.e., from the time of resurface (maybe a lava mare flow) the scarring would be proportional to the length of exposure.
As most things in geology, this scenario is true but with caveats… : first, the resurfacing by lava flow or ejecta mantling might have only partially buried ancient craters, or, more probably, only the smaller ones, thus skewing the crater-size statistical record; crater rims erode with time, even on an airless body like the Moon, at a rate of around 0.06-1 cm per million year. This might not seem much, but in the lunar chronology scale, measured in billions of years, this factor becomes significant; in reality, the biggest source of uncertainty is represented by secondary craters: most impacts generate coherent distal ejecta that, when landed, produce smaller craters virtually indistinguishable from space-born ones. And this is fractal, i.e. scaled: big impacts will generate hundreds of smaller craters that will overlap with similar ones from nearby big impacts…
The hard reality is that there are no cast-iron methods to establish the origin of each excavation (although it has been advocated that a secondary crater might be somewhat shallower in comparison to a similarly-sized primary one). So, an ‘expert’ becomes so by developing a ‘sense’ or instinct on what ‘feels’ a statistically significant crater against one that is not. This approach is more akin to ‘artistic interpretation’ than ‘hard’ science, but qualitative investigation of certain geological features is an acceptable compromise when a physical method is either not yet available or even impossible to develop.
These considerations do not stop the development of alternative methodologies though; indeed, we are working closely with a research group at Manchester University which is building an automated pattern recognition software of circular features (and others) based on theoretical models, and actual data: ‘expert’ counts, AND MoonZoo users’ data.
Now, whatever approach brings us closer to a reliable crater counting method this cannot be easily accomplished by even a troupe of crater-counting planetary scientists: the 8.5 million craters noted by the MoonZoo community would have taken years to harvest otherwise!
So, what is going to happen now? Well, the ‘expert’ and pattern recognition software data will be compared with the MoonZoo output, uncertainties and limitations of all approaches established and, hopefully, develop a method that will represent the basis for ‘trusting blind’ the MoonZoo craters stats. In practice this will translate into something like “MoonZoo crater data are consistent with other methods for crater of sizes ‘x’ to ‘y’, in images with resolution higher than ‘z’ meters, and illumination of ‘n’ degrees or higher”.
Ultimately, the crater statistics (Cumulative Crater Frequency) plotted against known crater accumulation functions (i.e. Neukum, 1983, 2010) give us an estimate of the age of the lunar region. Using these data from landing sites allows for comparison with returned samples whose age has been established in the laboratory.Figure 2. Age estimates based on estimated crater frequency distribution against crater size (diameter)
Our next journey will focus around the Apollo 12 landing site, in Mare Cognitum. The geology of this region is radically different from the Apollo 17 and it should serve as a perfect complement to our work so far. Elsewhere my colleagues will discuss and introduce the region in more detail, including ulterior scientific reasons behind the choice of this landing site.
We shall keep you informed of all further developments and new projects, and, once again, thanks for your patient and enthusiastic contribution to planetary science!
Michael G.G., Neukum G., Planetary surface dating from crater size-frequency distribution measurements: Partial resurfacing events and statistical age uncertainty, Earth and Planetary Science Letters, 2010, DOI: 10.1016/j.epsl.2009.12.041.
Neukum G., Meteoritenbombardement und Datierung planetarer Oberfl�chen. Habilitation Dissertation for Faculty Membership, Univ. of Munich, 186pp, 1983.
Dr. Roberto Bugiolacchi
Moon Zoo science lead
Birkbeck, University of London
University College London (UCL)