Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Timing of crystallization of the lunar magma ocean constrained by the oldest zircon


The Moon is thought to have formed through the consolidation of debris from the collision of a Mars-sized body with the Earth more than 4,500 million years ago. The primitive Moon was covered with a thick layer of melt known as the lunar magma ocean1, the crystallization of which resulted in the Moon’s surface as it is observed today. There is considerable debate, however, over the precise timing and duration of the process of magma ocean crystallization. Here we date a zircon from lunar breccias to an age of 4,417±6 million years. This date provides a precise younger age limit for the solidification of the lunar magma ocean. We propose a model that suggests an exponential rate of lunar crystallization, based on a combination of this oldest known lunar zircon and the age of the Moon-forming giant impact. We conclude that the formation of the Moon’s anorthositic crust followed the solidification of 80–85% of the original melt, within about 100 million years of the collision. The existence of younger zircons2 is indicative of the continued solidification of a small percentage of melt for an extra 200–400 million years.

This is a preview of subscription content

Access options

Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Figure 1: Microstructure of the zircon grain from lunar breccia 72215, 195.
Figure 2: U–Pb SHRIMP data for the zircon from the breccia thin section 72215, 195.
Figure 3: LMO crystallization paths based on the available chronological data.


  1. Shearer, C. K. Thermal and magmatic evolution of the moon. In: New Views of the Moon, Rev. Mineral. Geochem. 60, 365–518 (Mineralogica Society of America, 2006).

  2. Nemchin, A. A., Pidgeon, R. T., Whitehouse, M. J., Vaughan, J. P. & Meyer, C. SIMS U–Pb study of zircon from Apollo 14 and 17 breccias: Implications for the evolution of lunar KREEP. Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta. 72, 668–689 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Warren, P. H. & Wasson, J. T. The origin of KREEP. Rev. Geophys. Space Phys. 17, 73–88 (1979).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Alibert, C., Norman, M. D. & McCulloch, M. T. An ancient Sm–Nd age for a ferroan noritic anorthosite clast from lunar breccia 67016. Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta 58, 2921–2926 (1994).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Borg, L. Isotopic studies of ferroan anorthosite 62236: A young lunar crustal rock from a light rare-earth-element-depleted source. Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta 63, 2679–2691 (1999).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Norman, M. D., Borg, L. E., Nyquist, L. E. & Bogard, D. D. Chronology, geochemistry, and petrology of a ferroan noritic anorthosite from Descartes breccia 67215: Clues to the age, origin, structure and impact history of the lunar crust. Meteorit. Planet. Sci. 38, 645–661 (2003).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Papanastassiou, D. A., Wasserburg, G. J. & Burnett, D. S. Rb–Sr ages of lunar rocks from the Sea of Tranquillity. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 8, 1–19 (1970).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Tera, F. & Wasserburg, G. U–Th–Pb systematics on lunar rocks and inferences about lunar evolution and the age of the moon. Proc. 5th Lunar Sci. Conf. 1571–1599 (1974).

  9. Lugmair, G. W. & Carlson, R. W. The Sm–Nd history of KREEP. Proc. Lunar Planet. Sci. Conf. 9, 689–704 (1978).

    Google Scholar 

  10. Nyquist, L. E. & Shih, C.-Y. The isotopic record of lunar volcanism. Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta 56, 2213–2234 (1992).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Touboul, M., Kleine, T., Bourdon, B., Palme, H. & Wieler, R. Late formation and prolonged differentiation of the Moon inferred from W isotopes in lunar metals. Nature 450, 1206–1209 (2007).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Nyquist, L. E., Wiesmann, H., Shih, C.-Y., Keith, J. E. & Harper, C. L. 146Sm–142Nd formation interval in the lunar mantle. Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta 59, 2817–2837 (1995).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Rankenburg, K., Brandon, A. D. & Neal, C. Neodymium isotope evidence for the chondritic composition of the Moon. Science 312, 1369–1372 (2006).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Compston, W., Williams, I. S. & Meyer, C. U–Pb geochronology of zircons from Lunar Breccia 73217 using a sensitive high mass-resolution ion microprobe, Proc. Lunar Planet. Sci. Conf. 14th, J. Geophys. Res. 89, B525–B534 (1984).

  15. Dickinson, J. E. & Hess, P. C. Zircon saturation in lunar basalts and granites. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 57, 336–344 (1982).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Timms, N. E., Kinny, P. D. & Reddy, S. M. Enhanced diffusion of Uranium and Thorium linked to crystal plasticity in zircon. Geochem. Trans. 7, 10 (2006).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Reddy, S. M. et al. Crystal-plastic deformation of zircon: A defect in the assumption of chemical robustness. Geology 34, 257–260 (2006).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Solomatov, V. S. in Origin of the Earth and Moon (eds Canup, R. & Righter, K.) 323–338 (Univ. Arizona Press, 2000).

    Google Scholar 

  19. Snyder, G. A., Taylor, L. A. & Neil, C. R. A chemical model for generating the sources of mare basalts: Combined equilibrium and fractional crystallization of the lunar magmasphere. Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta 56, 3809–3823 (1992).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Longhi, J. A model of early lunar differentiation. Proc. Lunar Planet. Sci. Conf. 11, 289–315 (1980).

    Google Scholar 

  21. Reddy, S. M., Timms, N. E., Pantleon, W. & Trimby, P. Quantitative characterization of plastic deformation of zircon and geological implications. Contrib. Mineral. Petrol. 153, 625–645 (2007).

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


In particular we would like to thank the astronauts of Apollo 17 for collecting the sample. The project was supported by the office of R&D department at Curtin University of Technology. Imaging was supported by the Australian Research Council Discovery Grant DP0664078 to S.R. and N.T.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to A. Nemchin.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information, Table S1

Supplementary Information (PDF 120 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Nemchin, A., Timms, N., Pidgeon, R. et al. Timing of crystallization of the lunar magma ocean constrained by the oldest zircon. Nature Geosci 2, 133–136 (2009).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

Further reading


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing