Lunar boulder hits a hole in one!

By Phil Plait | May 24, 2010 9:00 am

Y’know, I see a gazillion pictures of astronomical objects all the time, and I never get tired of them. But every now and again a picture comes along that’s so wonderful I just have to share it.

This is one such piece of wonderfulness: a lunar hole in one!

lro_holeinone

And you thought the windmill at the end of putt putt golf was hard.

This picture — click to enlunanate — is from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, and shows a region of the Moon inside the crater Henry Frères. Taken on March 7, 2010, the image shows an area just 500 meters (550 yards) across — if it were Earth, you could easily walk across it in less than ten minutes — and shows objects down to less than a meter in size.

lro_holeinone_zoomAnd it’s just so cool! Look at the dashed trail going from left to right. See how it ends at the little crater, and even — if you look closely — can be seen to turn downwards? It suspiciously points right to the 10-meter (30+ foot) boulder sitting just inside the crater wall.

Suspicious indeed. In fact, what you’re seeing is the trail left by that boulder as it rolled and bounced downhill and stopped inside the crater! Look at the big picture. From the debris (small rocks) running up and down, you can tell that the terrain on the left side of the picture slopes down to the middle (in other words, if you started on the left side and walked to the center of the picture you’d be going downhill). The middle of the picture is relatively level ground.

In my mind’s eye, what happened here is clear. The boulder starts off at the left, and something — perhaps a minor moonquake, or a nearby impact — shakes the ground. The house-sized rock gets dislodged, and in the gentle gravity begins to roll downhill. It hits something and bounces, coming back down, skidding and rolling, only to be launched into the sky again and again. It slows a bit each time — the ruts it digs get shorter as it moves left-to-right — and by the time it gets to the end of the track it’s barely moving, just enough to feel the change of slope due to the crater wall. It even rolled past the crater a bit (you can see the last groove is actually along the path a little beyond the crater), and almost slows to a stop… but then slowwwwwwly teeters backwards, back along the path it came. Just as it’s about to come to a rest, it goes over the lip of the crater, slides into it, and lumbers to a halt halfway down the 60-meter (200 foot) crater’s wall.

I would give a lot to be able to see video of something like this happening on the Moon in real time. Wow!

And that boulder’s flight is just one of many scenes depicted here, which you can see if you let yourself explore. Just above the bouncing boulder’s path is a trail of what looks like a dustslide, a bit more brightly colored than the moonscape around it. It slid downhill to the right as well, and partially buried some of the bigger debris. Obviously, this happened after the bigger rocks already slid down, since it buried some of them. And above that in the picture you can see fainter trails from other rocks sliding down. Those trails are harder to see, meaning they’re older (millions of years of micrometeorite impacts and thermal flexing from the Moon’s day/night cycle gradually erase features like that), which again is consistent with the picture I’m painting here.

sloped_plumeTake a look at the crater at the bottom left. It’s surrounded by a light-colored apron of ejected material. See how there’s more of that ejecta to the right than to the left? That’s what you’d expect if the slope goes downhill to the right; the material spreads out more as it falls downslope (the diagram here will help). And hmmm, there’s a small crater about 10 meters across just to the right and below the big crater with the boulder in it. That crater is fresher; it still has a light apron as well. But what’s that dark spot in the center? Beats me. Cool though, ain’t it?

There’s so much to see and investigate, and this image is only about the size of a city block! It’s a slice of a much longer 2.5 x 15 km strip, which you can interactively browse, too. WARNING: be prepared to lose a lot of your day if you click that link, but it’s worth it, just like exploring the thousands of other pictures LRO has sent back is worth it as well.

The LRO mission cost roughly $600 million. There are 300 million people living in the US right now… so play with those images for a few minutes, and then let me know if you got your two bucks’ worth out of this mission.

Image credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University

MORE ABOUT: crater, LRO, Moon

Comments (37)

  1. Messier Tidy Upper

    Well done Alan Shepard! ;-)

    (He was the only golfer on the Moon so it must’ve been him way back on Apollo 14 thirty nine years ago.)

    See : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alan_Shepard#Apollo_14

    “..miles and miles and miles.” … that lunar golf-ball went & now we find it got a hole in one too. 8)

    This crater is in the Frau Mauro region right? Pretty big golf ball mind you. ;-)

    *****

    By odd & apt co-incidence, I am currently reading an excellent biography of Alan Shepard – Light This Candle by Neal Thompson (Three Rivers Press, 2005.) a great read which I’d thoroughly recommend. :-)

  2. Hierro

    This is obviously an attempt by the ancient space aliens living in their space station, aka. the Moon, to distract people from the truth of what Apollo found by playing mini golf.

    Obviously.

  3. Is there any way of knowing when this happened? Naive question, I suppose, but that’s what occurred to me when considering Phil’s “I would love to see this real-time” comment. But it’s a wonder to see something like this that may have played out millions of years ago.

  4. #2 Hierro: Darn it, you meet me to my comment. :)

    Great picture.

  5. Messier Tidy Upper

    The LRO mission cost roughly $600 million. There are 300 million people living in the US right now… so play with those images for a few minutes, and then let me know if you got your two bucks’ worth out of this mission.

    Of course, it is NOT just Americans who have benefitted from their space program… I’m an Aussie and I almost feel obliged to mail NASA $ 3 (or whatever Australian dollar equivalent is) to pay my share.

    The whole planet benefits from NASA and in this case the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter’s work so .. Thankyou Americans of the United States from me. :-)

  6. John Paradox

    In my mind’s eye, what happened here is clear. The boulder starts off at the left, and something — perhaps a minor moonquake, or a nearby impact — shakes the ground. The house-sized rock gets dislodged, and in the gentle gravity begins to roll downhill. It hits something and bounces, coming back down, skidding and rolling, only to be launched into the sky again and again.

    Don’t be silly, it’s Space Squirrels!!!

    J/P=?

  7. Well, I look at this and I see a coincidence that is just too big to be a coincidence! I mean, seriously, what are the odds of that happening? This is of course proof that the Tuatha Dé Danann are real, and we should all take up golfing as our holy observances. :P

  8. Stargazer

    That is one of the coolest things I’ve seen on the surface of the Moon.

  9. Craig

    Phil:

    Haven’t you heard of Occam’s razon? The simplest explanation is that this is where the Bugs Bunny episode “My Bunny Lies Over the Sea” was filmed. (This is the episode where Bugs challenges a Scotsman to a round of golf.) This is from the scene where Bugs greatly enlarges the hole so his otherwise-errant shot would roll in. Your astronomy classes were a waste of time: you should have watched more Looney Tunes. :-)

  10. Sili

    I think I found a boulder track on MoonZoo yesterday. At least that’s what I marked it as.

  11. Elizabeth

    Wow! Scanning through the strip at the most zoomed in level, you can see lots of boulders that have tumbled down. There’s one with a nice arcing path coming in from the right at the top edge of the bright area in the reference strip.

  12. Liz

    #5, you’re very welcome. And thank YOU for Mel Gibson :)

  13. But what’s that dark spot in the center? Beats me. Cool though, ain’t it?

    So why can’t that black dot by meteor? Obviously none of the other craters have meters in the middle, so maybe my question is, why aren’t there big meteors in them.
    If the moon has practically no atmosphere, then I assume they aren’t getting burned up on entry. So where are they?

  14. Pi-needles

    @ ^ Non-Believer Says:

    Obviously none of the other craters have meters in the middle,

    They’re all in imperial units instead! The luatics are just getting started on the metric system. ;-)

    (Yeah, shouldn’t make fun of typos, I make too many of the blighters myself but I just couldn’t resist that.)

    Seriously, Non-Believer you get meteorite *craters* on the moon but not meteors due to the lack of atmosphere.

    Although I do recall seeing a post (or two?) here on Leonid impact flashes and seeing the demise of various lunar probes that were impacted into the Lunar surface kicking up brief plumes of material.

    PS. if you were meaning the meteorites that cause the craters, same happens to them on the Moon as on the Earth – they get (mostly?) vapourised. As Peter B. (14) has also pointed out.

  15. Peter B

    Non-Believer @ #12 said: “So why can’t that black dot by meteor?”

    Do you mean “be a meteor”?

    “Obviously none of the other craters have meters in the middle, so maybe my question is, why aren’t there big meteors in them. If the moon has practically no atmosphere, then I assume they aren’t getting burned up on entry. So where are they?”

    At the speed meteors strike objects like the Moon or the Earth, they get vaporised by the impact. Don’t think of meteors as being like a block of iron dropped from a tall building; meteors hit the Moon at speeds of >10 kilometres/second. At that sort of speed, there won’t be anything left of the meteor.

  16. J

    Zooming in on the dark spot in the center of the lower right crater, you can see a rim shadow consistent with the other craters and a little ejecta in the “south” direction of the enclosing crater’s interior. I’d wager that the dark spot is actually a second impact crater within a crater. Another hole-in-one!

  17. Aaron

    I know that this has already been said, but the first thing that came to my mind when seeing this image was,

    “Hole-in-one, Al!”

  18. It is interesting to notice what others do not see. Suggest some interesting notes with pictures and links to sources. Perhaps someone might interpret such data.

    “Nazca Desert” on the Moon: strange pictures “Lunar Orbiter”:
    http://aleksey-galan.blogspot.com/2010/04/nazca-desert-on-moon-strange-pictures.html

    Square craters on the moon with the photos of the Chinese space website:
    http://aleksey-galan.blogspot.com/2010/03/square-craters-on-moon.html

    SMART-1: The hollows on the Moon. The ramified system of hollows .

    «This sequence of images, taken by the advanced Moon Imaging Experiment (AMIE) on board ESA’s «SMART-1» spacecraft, shows an area on the near side of the Moon, at the edge of the Mare Humorum basin».
    http://aleksey-galan.blogspot.com/2010/03/smart-1-hollows-on-moon.html

  19. Robinki

    #5 Ozzie:

    Allroight mate, keep the $3AU. We are just paying Oz back for the excellent work you lot did during Apollo, relaying the signals from the moon bases. (See movie “The Dish”)

    Re #12: Can we please send Mel Gibson back?

  20. I would give a lot to be able to see video of something like this happening on the Moon in real time. Wow!

    Hmm… http://www.webcam.crater37.moon

    Darn, “server not found”. :-(

  21. In space, nobody can hear you shout “FOUR!”

  22. ted

    #18 – Aleksy – you do know that Lunar Orbiter did its Film Processing in Lunar orbit, before scanning the film and transmitting it to earth… So your “Nazca Desert” images (weird sections) are bubbles / blemishes caused by a “zero-g” film process…. You will find a number of them if you keep looking at Lunar Orbiter imagery. Cheers!

  23. Kevin F.

    That’s NOTHING. I know a race of primates who launched a rover from their planet to the next one out looking for evidence of water and they scored a hole in one, landing right in a tiny crater – not only that, but landing right next to the proof they needed!

  24. Hahaha, sure, Kevin, next you’ll be saying that those barely-more-than-an-ape beings can talk, use nuclear technology, invent a worldwide computer network and even send a few of their race to land on their planet’s moon! What a card…

  25. Kevin F.

    Don’t make me fling poo at you, Brian. :D

  26. Zucchi

    Imagine standing on the Moon in a spacesuit (good choice) and seeing that happen. Huge boulder bouncing down, in eerie slow motion and total silence.

  27. CR

    #27 Zucchi… I wonder, though, if you’d feel the boulder’s bouncing through your moon boots, assuming the boulder is big enough. (And then I wonder if you’d be able to get out of its way quickly enough to avoid being squished.) Interesting imagery, though!

    #21 TechyDad, isn’t it “fore!” instead of “four!”?

  28. Although there are about 300 mil people in the US, there are only about 140 mil taxpayers. So, we each chipped in about $4 each. Not that this is the point, but really we should differentiate who’s paying the bills for this kind of frivolity.

  29. Pi-needles

    @ 23. Kevin F. Says:

    That’s NOTHING. I know a race of primates who launched a rover from their planet to the next one out looking for evidence of water and they scored a hole in one, landing right in a tiny crater – not only that, but landing right next to the proof they needed!

    Good to see you take your *Opportunity* to mention that! ;-)

    That martian hole-in-one :

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opportunity_rover#Landing_site:_.22Eagle.22_crater

    has beat this one good though it is. ;-)

    BTW. We’ve spotted the descent LEM stages, we’ve spotted the astronauts footsteps; wonder if we’ll ever have a space probe sharp enough to spot Al Shepard’s golf ball? ;-)

  30. Kevin F.

    @29. Pi-needles

    “Good to see you take your *Opportunity* to mention that!”

    BOO! :)

  31. Gerry

    Hey, the Reptilians need some recreation too….

  32. mike burkhart

    This can’t be Alan Shepards golf ball its to big.By the way maybe ,Phill could comment on this I read that a astronomer in the 1800 clamed the Frau Maro crater had been filled in and disapered ,most astronomers today don’t think anything happened to Frau Maro.

  33. Chris the Canadian

    Kevin #26… flinging poo in space? That could be the farthest poo fling ever in the history of man kind!!! I’d actually pay to see that… about $2.50 Canadian…

  34. Glenn

    Greens tend to slope towards water….maybe NASA should drill around there for signs of past life.

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