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Abundance of highly siderophile elements in lunar basalts controlled by iron sulfide melt


The Moon accreted meteoritic material towards the end of Solar System formation. Quantification of this late accretion requires an estimation of the abundance of highly siderophile, or iron-loving, elements in the lunar mantle. As lunar mantle samples are not available, estimates are derived from lunar basalt compositions, but the melting phase relations needed to derive the mantle composition are poorly constrained. Here we present sulfur solubility measurements from laboratory experiments, combined with thermodynamic calculations, which show that the lunar basalt source is likely to be saturated in a sulfur-poor, iron-rich sulfide melt that concentrates some highly siderophile elements more than others. We found that the observed range in the ratios of highly siderophile elements in primitive lunar basalts is much smaller than expected from residual sulfide control alone. Instead, the elemental ratios are consistent with mixing between primary sulfide-saturated melts and minute (<1%) amounts of lunar regolith that contain impact debris. Although the composition of some samples suggests a highly depleted lunar mantle, the exact level of depletion is unclear, because mixing trajectories overlap at the inferred level of regolith contamination. We conclude that the composition of the lunar mantle is veiled by regolith contamination of the lunar basalts. If so, highly siderophile element abundances in lunar mantle-derived materials cannot be used to determine the mass of material accreted late onto the Moon.

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Fig. 1: Sulfide solubility as a function of \(f_{{\rm{O}}_2}\) relative to the IW buffer.
Fig. 2: Backscattered electron images of the sectioned and polished run products from high-pressure sulfide solubility experiments.
Fig. 3: Comparison of calculated sulfide solubility to measured sulfur content of lunar mare mafic volcanic samples.
Fig. 4: Comparison between melting model results and the composition of primitive lunar mare basalts.

Data availability

The authors declare that the data supporting the findings of this study are available within the paper and its Supplementary Information files.


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J.M.B. and J.E.M. acknowledge financial support from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada through the Discovery Grant Program. V. Homolova is thanked for her assistance in conducting some of the sulfide solubility experiments when an undergraduate student at University of Toronto. We especially appreciate the detailed comments from R. Fonseca and P. Gleißner.

Author information




J.M.B. conceived of the study. J.M.B. did the experiments and run-product analysis. J.E.M. did the melting calculations with input from J.M.B. N.R.B. provided the sulfide melt speciation model. J.M.B. wrote the manuscript with input from J.E.M. and N.R.B.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to James M. Brenan.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Information and Figs. 1–13.

Supplementary Table 1

Summary of silicate and sulfide melt compositions from sulfur solubility experiments.

Supplementary Table 2

Summary of phase compositions from sulfide–silicate partitioning experiments.

Supplementary Table 3

Summary partition coefficients.

Supplementary Table 4

Parameters used for melting and crystallization calculations.

Supplementary Table 5

Summary of mixing parameters for tungsten isotopes.

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Brenan, J.M., Mungall, J.E. & Bennett, N.R. Abundance of highly siderophile elements in lunar basalts controlled by iron sulfide melt. Nat. Geosci. 12, 701–706 (2019).

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