According to the most widely-accepted theory, the Moon formed roughly 4.5 billion years ago when a Mars-sized object named Theia collided with Earth (aka. the Giant Impact Hypothesis). This impact threw up considerable amounts of debris which gradually coalesced to form Earth’s only natural satellite. One of the most compelling proofs for this theory is the fact that the Earth and the Moon are remarkably similar in terms of composition.
However, previous studies involving computer simulations have shown that if the Moon were created by a giant impact, it should have retained more material from the impactor itself. But according to a new study conducted by a team from the University of New Mexico, it is possible that the Earth and the Moon are not as similar as previously thought.
The most comprehensive and widely-held theory of how the Moon formed is called the ‘giant impact hypothesis.’ That hypothesis shows that about 150 million years after the Solar System formed, a roughly Mars-sized planet named Theia collided with Earth. Though the timeline is hotly-debated in the scientific community, we know that this collision melted Theia and some of Earth, and that molten rock orbited around Earth until it coalesced into the Moon.
But now a new study, though not contradicting the giant impact hypothesis, is suggesting a different timeline, and an older Moon.
Since the late 19th century, scientists have struggled to explain the origin of the Moon. While scientists have long-theorized that it and the Earth have a common origin, the questions of how and when has proven to be elusive. For instance, the general consensus today is that an impact with a Mars-sized object (Theia) led to the formation of the Earth-Moon System shortly after the formation of the planets (aka. the Giant Impact Hypothesis).
However, simulations of this impact have shown that the Moon would have formed out of material primarily from the impacting object. This is not borne out by the evidence, though, which shows that the Moon is composed of the same material Earth is. Luckily, a new study by a team of scientists from Japan and the US has offered an explanation for the discrepancy: the collision took place when Earth was still composed of hot magma.
According the Giant Impact Hypothesis, the Earth-Moon system was created roughly 4.5 billion years ago when a Mars-sized object collided with Earth. This impact led to the release of massive amounts of material that eventually coalesced to form the Earth and Moon. Over time, the Moon gradually migrated away from Earth and assumed its current orbit.
Since then, there have been regular exchanges between the Earth and the Moon due to impacts on their surfaces. According to a recent study, an impact that took place during the Hadean Eon (roughly 4 billion years ago) may have been responsible for sending the Earth’s oldest sample of rock to the Moon, where it was retrieved by the Apollo 14 astronauts.
To put it simply, the Earth’s Moon is a dry, airless place where nothing lives. Aside from concentrations of ice that exist in permanently-shaded craters in the polar regions, the only water on the moon is believed to exist beneath the surface. What little atmosphere there is consists of elements released from the interior (some of which are radioactive) and helium-4 and neon, which are contributed by solar wind.
However, astronomers have theorized that there may have been a time when the Moon might have been inhabitable. According to a new study by an astrophysicist and an Earth and planetary scientist, the Moon may have had two early “windows” for habitability in the past. These took place roughly 4 billion years ago (after the Moon formed) and during the peak in lunar volcanic activity (ca. 3.5 billion years ago).
The gas/ice giant Uranus has long been a source of mystery to astronomers. In addition to presenting some thermal anomalies and a magnetic field that is off-center, the planet is also unique in that it is the only one in the Solar System to rotate on its side. With an axial tilt of 98°, the planet experiences radical seasons and a day-night cycle at the poles where a single day and night last 42 years each.
Thanks to a new study led by researchers from Durham University, the reason for these mysteries may finally have been found. With the help of NASA researchers and multiple scientific organizations, the team conducted simulations that indicated how Uranus may have suffered a massive impact in its past. Not only would this account for the planet’s extreme tilt and magnetic field, it would also explain why the planet’s outer atmosphere is so cold.
For decades, scientists have pondered how Earth acquired its only satellite, the Moon. Whereas some have argued that it formed from material lost by Earth due to centrifugal force, or was captured by Earth’s gravity, the most widely accepted theory is that the Moon formed roughly 4.5 billion years ago when a Mars-sized object (named Theia) collided with a proto-Earth (aka. the Giant Impact Hypothesis).
However, since the proto-Earth experienced many giant-impacts, several moons are expected to have formed in orbit around it over time. The question thus arises, what happened to these moons? Raising this very question, a team an international team of scientist conducted a study in which they suggest that these “moonlets” could have eventually crashed back into Earth, leaving only the one we see today.
For centuries, scientists have been attempting to explain how the Moon formed. Whereas some have argued that it formed from material lost by Earth due to centrifugal force, others asserted that a preformed Moon was captured by Earth’s gravity. In recent decades, the most widely-accepted theory has been the Giant-impact hypothesis, which states that the Moon formed after the Earth was struck by a Mars-sized object (named Theia) 4.5 billion years ago.
According to a new study by an international team of researchers, the key to proving which theory is correct may come from the first nuclear tests conducted here on Earth, some 70 years ago. After examining samples of radioactive glass obtained from the Trinity test site in New Mexico (where the first atomic bomb was detonated), they determined that samples of Moon rocks showed a similar depletion of volatile elements.
Artist’s impression of an impact of two planet-sized worlds (NASA/JPL-Caltech)
Scientists have uncovered a history of violence hidden within lunar rocks, further evidence that our large, lovely Moon was born of a cataclysmic collision between worlds billions of years ago.
Using samples gathered during several Apollo missions as well as a lunar meteorite that had fallen to Earth (and using Martian meteorites as comparisons) researchers have observed a marked depletion in lunar rocks of lighter isotopes, including those of zinc — a telltale element that can be “a powerful tracer of the volatile histories of planets.”
The research utilized an advanced mass spectroscopy instrument to measure the ratios of specific isotopes present in the lunar samples. The spectrometer’s high level of precision allows for data not possible even five years ago.
Scientists have been looking for this kind of sorting by mass, called isotopic fractionation, since the Apollo missions first brought Moon rocks to Earth in the 1970s, and Frédéric Moynier, PhD, assistant professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis — together with PhD student, Randal Paniello, and colleague James Day of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography — are the first to find it.
The team’s findings support a now-widely-accepted hypothesis — called the Giant Impact Theory, first suggested by PSI scientists William K. Hartmann and Donald Davis in 1975 — that the Moon was created from a collision between early Earth and a Mars-sized protoplanet about 4.5 billion years ago. The effects of the impact eventually formed the Moon and changed the evolution of our planet forever — possibly even proving crucial to the development of life on Earth.
(What would a catastrophic event like that have looked like? Probably something like this:)
“This is compelling evidence of extreme volatile depletion of the moon,” said Scripps researcher James Day, a member of the team. “How do you remove all of the volatiles from a planet, or in this case a planetary body? You require some kind of wholesale melting event of the moon to provide the heat necessary to evaporate the zinc.”
In the team’s paper, published in the October 18 issue of Nature, the researchers suggest that the only way for such lunar volatiles to be absent on such a large scale would be evaporation resulting from a massive impact event.
“When a rock is melted and then evaporated, the light isotopes enter the vapor phase faster than the heavy isotopes, so you end up with a vapor enriched in the light isotopes and a solid residue enriched in the heavier isotopes. If you lose the vapor, the residue will be enriched in the heavy isotopes compared to the starting material,” explains Moynier.
The fact that similar isotopic fractionation has been found in lunar samples gathered from many different locations indicates a widespread global event, and not something limited to any specific regional effect.
The next step is finding out why Earth’s crust doesn’t show an absence of similar volatiles, an investigation that may lead to clues to where Earth’s surface water came from.
“Where did all the water on Earth come from?” asked Day. “This is a very important question because if we are looking for life on other planets we have to recognize that similar conditions are probably required. So understanding how planets obtain such conditions is critical for understanding how life ultimately occurs on a planet.”
“The work also has implications for the origin of the Earth,” adds Moynier, “because the origin of the Moon was a big part of the origin of the Earth.”