Before the age of space exploration, astronomers assumed that the Moon's core was smaller than the Earth`s, in both relative and absolute terms – the radius of the Earth's core is 55 percent of the overall radius of the Earth and the core's mass is 32 percent of the Earth's overall mass – but they had no way to verify this. Two sets of data gathered by Lunar Prospector have now given astronomers the ability to determine that the Moon's core accounts for 20 percent of the Moon's radius and for a mere 2 percent of its overall mass.
First, scientists measured minute, relatively rapid variations in the wavelength of radio signals from Lunar Prospector as the craft moved towards or away from the Earth. Using these variations, scientists accurately determined even slight changes in the craft's velocity while the craft orbited the Moon, changes resulting from inconsistency in the gravitational pull of the Moon on the craft. The data were used to create a "gravity map" of both near and far sides of the Moon, highlighting new details of the distribution of the Moon's internal mass. Scientists thus determined that the Moon has a small, metallic core, which, if composed mostly of iron, has a radius of approximately 350 kilometers. The second method involved examining the faint magnetic field generated within the Moon itself by the Moon's monthly passage through the tail of the Earth's magnetosphere. This approach confirmed the results obtained through examination of the gravity map.
The size and composition of the Moon's core have serious implications for our understanding of the Moon's origins. If the Moon and Earth developed as distinct entities, the sizes of their cores should be more comparable. In actuality, it seems that the Moon was once part of the Earth and broke away at an early stage in the Earth's evolution, perhaps due to a major asteroid impact that could have loosened a chunk of iron, allowing it to form the core around which the Moon eventually coalesced. Alternatively, according to fission theory, the early Earth may have spun so rapidly that it ejected a quantity of material by so-called centrifugal force, material that later coalesced by mutual gravitational attraction into the Moon.