Scientists have discovered a new crater hidden beneath the surface of the moon. The team hopes to name the crater after aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart. Director of the Illinois State University Planetarium Tom Willmitch weighs in on how the crater was discovered and the hoops the Earhart crater faces to officially secure the name.
We’ve been looking at the moon’s surface since Galileo in 1609. And everything that could be named has been named – on the surface. The side of the moon facing the Earth has been mapped for centuries. But these scientists are looking at what’s underneath the surface. And they found a crater that no one knew existed.
NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) probes mapped variations in the density of the moon’s crust in 2012. Scientists from Purdue University have been analyzing the data, and discovered the ridges of this crater by looking at what is going on gravitationally beneath the surface of the moon. It is a very ancient crater – somewhere in the ballpark of 3.5 billion years old under the Sea of Serenity. Billions of years ago, when the moon was still hot and volcanic, big craters were smashed out by asteroid-size objects impacting the surface. Molten lava from within the moon seeped up into those craters, filled them, and cooled hard. Galileo saw these and called them seas, because he didn’t know what he was seeing. He knew they weren’t water, but they were smooth and dark, so he called them mare—the Latin word for seas.
Purdue scientists were studying the volcanic tubes where lava once flowed to the surface. Based on the gravitational mapping data, they also found this ancient crater.
Craters are often named after explorers and there is no crater Earhart – which seems to be an oversight. Earhart had some ties to Purdue. The university owned the plane she was flying when she vanished. Sadly, when you discover something, you don’t get to name it.
The International Astronomical Union (IAU) based in Paris has special committees that are the official naming agencies. The IAU is basically an organization of organizations—the Royal Astronomical Society, the American Astronomical Society, the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada—all of these organizations have an umbrella organization of professional astronomers, which is the IAU. They are the official naming body for the astronomical community. There is a committee that deals with names of things on the moon, names of the various planets, names of stars, etc. They are the ones who assign those names. Since 1919, the IAU gives the names.
It would be a hodge-podge if everybody was wildly naming things. People would name things after their dog or cat. So it’s good the IAU regulates the astronomical naming of objects. Though the IAU has not officially accepted this name, let’s hope the committee approves it. An explorer like Amelia Earhart needs to be honored.