NASA Missions Let Scientists See Moon’s Dancing Tide From Orbit

Scientists combined observations from two NASA missions to check out the moon’s lopsided shape and how it changes under Earth’s sway – a response not seen from orbit before.

The team drew on studies by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, which has been investigating the moon since 2009, and by NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory, or GRAIL, mission. Because orbiting spacecraft gathered the data, the scientists were able to take the entire moon into account, not just the side that can be observed from Earth.

“The deformation of the moon due to Earth’s pull is very challenging to measure, but learning more about it gives us clues about the interior of the moon,” said Erwan Mazarico, a scientist with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., who works at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

The lopsided shape of the moon is one result of its gravitational tug-of-war with Earth. The mutual pulling of the two bodies is powerful enough to stretch them both, so they wind up shaped a little like two eggs with their ends pointing toward one another. On Earth, the tension has an especially strong effect on the oceans, because water moves so freely, and is the driving force behind tides.

Earth’s distorting effect on the moon, called the lunar body tide, is more difficult to detect, because the moon is solid except for its small core. Even so, there is enough force to raise a bulge about 20 inches (51 centimeters) high on the near side of the moon and similar one on the far side.

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