Letter | Published:

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

Nature volume 538, pages 215218 (13 October 2016) | Download Citation


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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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


  1. Arizona State University, School of Earth and Space Exploration, Tempe, Arizona 85287, USA

    • Emerson J. Speyerer
    • , Reinhold Z. Povilaitis
    • , Mark S. Robinson
    •  & Robert V. Wagner
  2. Cornell University, Cornell Center for Astrophysics and Planetary Science, Ithaca, New York 14853, USA

    • Peter C. Thomas


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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.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Emerson J. Speyerer.

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

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