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Quantifying crater production and regolith overturn on the Moon with temporal imaging


Random bombardment by comets, asteroids and associated fragments form and alter the lunar regolith and other rocky surfaces. The accumulation of impact craters over time is of fundamental use in evaluating the relative ages of geologic units. Crater counts and radiometric ages from returned samples provide constraints with which to derive absolute model ages for unsampled units on the Moon and other Solar System objects1,2,3,4. However, although studies of existing craters and returned samples offer insight into the process of crater formation and the past cratering rate, questions still remain about the present rate of crater production, the effect of early-stage jetting during impacts and the influence that distal ejecta have on the regolith. Here we use Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC) Narrow Angle Camera (NAC) temporal (‘before and after’) image pairs to quantify the contemporary rate of crater production on the Moon, to reveal previously unknown details of impact-induced jetting, and to identify a secondary impact process that is rapidly churning the regolith. From this temporal dataset, we detected 222 new impact craters and found 33 per cent more craters (with diameters of at least ten metres) than predicted by the standard Neukum production and chronology functions for the Moon2. We identified broad reflectance zones associated with the new craters that we interpret as evidence of a surface-bound jetting process. We also observe a secondary cratering process that we estimate churns the top two centimetres of regolith on a timescale of 81,000 years—more than a hundred times faster than previous models estimated from meteoritic impacts (ten million years)5.

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Figure 1: Detection and distribution of new impact craters.
Figure 2: Annual cumulative size–frequency distribution of newly formed craters discovered with NAC temporal pairs.
Figure 3: Signatures of crater formation in NAC temporal-pair ratios.
Figure 4: Examples and annual size–frequency distribution of splotches.

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We acknowledge the engineers and technical support team at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and Arizona State University who enable the collection of a vast image archive of the lunar surface that will be used for decades to come. This work is supported by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) Project and the Arizona State University LROC contract.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



E.J.S. drafted the manuscript and authored the CRISP software used to identify surface changes. R.Z.P. classified and catalogued the temporal changes. M.S.R. is the principal investigator for the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera and provided key contributions to the scientific interpretations. P.C.T. aided in the scientific interpretations of splotches and reflectance zones. R.V.W. assisted in optimizing the change detection software and assessed temporal changes. All of the authors contributed to interpretation and analysis of the data.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Emerson J. Speyerer.

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Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Additional information

Reviewer Information Nature thanks M. Cintala, B. Ivanov and the other anonymous reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Figure 1 Reflectance changes caused by emplacement of splotches.

Histogram of reflectance changes associated with low-reflectance (top; n = 18,756) and high-reflectance (bottom; n = 1,757) splotches.

Extended Data Figure 2 Distribution of NAC temporal pairs.

Image footprints colour-coded by the number of days between the before and after observations (June 2009 to May 2015). The size of image footprints are exaggerated for display clarity.

Extended Data Figure 3 Temporal-pair statistics.

Left, distribution of the area covered by individual temporal pairs versus the temporal spacing between the corresponding observations. Right, histogram of the ground sampling distance for each after image of the NAC temporal pair.

Extended Data Figure 4 Effect of image registration errors.

ad, Examples of a temporal ratio image with decreasing pixel offsets (ratio of NAC frames M188678240LR/M1180548227LR): 10-pixel offset (7.8-m offset; a); 5-pixel offset (3.9-m offset; b); 3-pixel offset (2.3-m offset; c); and <1-pixel offset (<0.8-m offset; d). The larger offsets in ac make the identification of the new impact crater impossible.

Extended Data Figure 5 R-plot of new crater population.

Relative crater frequency R of the 222 new impact craters identified with temporal imaging. For reference, a 1-yr isochron (grey line) derived from the NPF is overlaid for diameters of ≥10 m. Error bars are estimated on the basis of Poisson statistics of counts.

Extended Data Figure 6 Details of the impact process recorded in the temporal pair.

Temporal ratio image of the 17 March 2013 impact site surrounded by four distinct reflectance zones (ratio of NAC frames M1129645568L/M183689789L).

Extended Data Figure 7 Range of reflectance zones associated with new impacts.

Maximum zone distance versus crater diameter for each of the four reflectance zones observed around new impacts. Craters smaller than 3 m in diameter were excluded from the least-squares fit.

Extended Data Table 1 Least-squares fit to maximum zone distance compared to crater diameter
Extended Data Table 2 Span of the proximal reflectance zones

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Speyerer, E., Povilaitis, R., Robinson, M. et al. Quantifying crater production and regolith overturn on the Moon with temporal imaging. Nature 538, 215–218 (2016).

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