How the moon got its face

How the moon got its face: Smile-like ‘lunar swirls’ were created by underground lava flows

The ‘man in the moon’ is actually made up of 40-mile-long ‘lunar swirls’: Patterns that look like a smiling face were created by magnetic lava flows beneath the surface

  • The ‘man in the moon’ illusion is familiar to various cultures across the globe
  • Some believe the man was banished after a disagreement with a powerful being
  • A new study suggests this illusion is the result of magnetic dust on the moon
  • The dust was left there by volcanic eruptions on the satellite billions of years ago

The ‘man in the moon’ illusion, familiar to various cultures across the globe, is the result of magnetic dust left by ancient lava, a new study suggests.

The dust created lunar swirls, bright, mysterious patterns on the surface of the rocky satellite that are often mistaken for faces and other shapes during a full moon.

Nasa has known about the swirls for decades, describing them as ‘like the cream in your coffee’, but until now it was not known what caused them.

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The ‘man in the moon’ illusion (real image of moon, left; artist’s impression of illusion, right) is recognised by traditions across the globe. A new study suggests lunar swirls, key markings on the moon that help create the illusion, are caused by magnetic dust left over by ancient lava


Lunar swirls have been described as the ‘tattoos of the moon’. 

These markings are known to exist in regions with high magnetism.

They appear to be less weathered than their surroundings, according to NASA.

Over time, they darken as a result of natural processes, including solar wind and micrometeoroid impacts.

It’s thought that they may have formed from plumes of material ejected by comets.

A new study suggests ancient tunnels dug by lava cause the swirls.

The lava broke down minerals in the crust, forming metallic iron, scientists said. 

Scientists had long suspected they appeared beneath areas of intense magnetism, which protects parts of the surface from solar winds.

Solar winds, streams of highly charged particles, normally batter the moon’s outer layer – causing it to gradually whiten over the course of its four-billion-year history.

In the new study, researchers at Rutgers University and the University of California, Berkeley, used computer models to map the moon’s lunar swirls.

They found that there are narrow, snake-like magnetic zones where the swirls appear.

These strings of magnetism line up with the shape of lava tubes – ancient subsurface tunnels formed during the moon’s violent volcanic past.

Areas where volcanic activity was strongest are now highly magnetic due to minerals in the rock breaking down under extreme temperatures, releasing metallic iron.

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Lunar swirls (bright regions in image) are mysterious swirling patterns on the surface of the moon that are often mistaken for faces and other shapes during a full moon

Pictured is the Mare Ingenii lunar swirl. Nasa has known about lunar swirls for decades, describing them as ‘like the cream in your coffee’

This means lava tubes and ‘dikes’ – large sheets of subsurface lava – formed by ancient volcanic activity could have become very magnetic as they cooled down.

This image shows the Reiner Gamma lunar swirl, taken by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter

Incoming particles from solar winds are deflected by this magnetic force field, allowing some parts of the moon to stay dark, forming lunar swirls.

‘No one had thought about this reaction in terms of explaining these unusually strong magnetic features on the moon,’ study co-author Dr Sonia Tikoo said.

‘This was the final piece in the puzzle of understanding the magnetism that underlies these lunar swirls.’

The find may finally explain the ‘man in the moon’ illusion – the appearance of a human face or head that certain traditions recognise in the disc of the full moon.

Many cultures believe the man was banished to the satellite after a disagreement with a powerful being.

The researchers published their findings in the Journal of Geophysical Research. 

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