Galactic cosmic rays and solar energetic particles (SEPs) can charge the Moon's subsurface, a process expected to be particularly important in the polar regions. Experiments have shown that sufficient fluences (i.e., time-integrated fluxes) of energetic charged particles can cause dielectric breakdown, in which the electric field rapidly vaporizes small, filamentary channels within a dielectric. Lunar regolith has both the characteristics and, in some polar locations, the environment needed to make breakdown likely. We combine the Jet Propulsion Laboratory proton fluence model with temperature measurements from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter's (LRO's) Diviner instrument and related temperature modeling to estimate how often breakdown occurs in the polar regions. We find that all gardened regolith within permanently shadowed regions (PSRs) has likely experienced up to 2×106 SEP events capable of causing breakdown, while the warmest polar regions have experienced about 2 orders of magnitude fewer events. We also use measurements from the Cosmic Ray Telescope for the Effects of Radiation on LRO to show that at least two breakdown-inducing events may have occurred since LRO arrived at the Moon in 2009. Finally, we discuss how such “breakdown weathering” may increase the percentage of fine and monomineralic grains within PSRs; explain the presence of so-called “fairy castle” regolith structures; and contribute to other low-albedo features detected by LRO's Lyman Alpha Mapping Project, possibly establishing a correlation between these features and the average temperatures within craters that are only partly in permanent shadow.



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Journal of Geophysical Research E: Planets


American Geophysical Union Publications

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