The Early Solar System was Messier and More Violent Than Previously Believed

Our conventional models of planet formation may have to be updated, according to a pair of new papers.

Accretion is the keyword in current planet formation theory. The idea is that the planets formed out of the solar nebula, the material left over after the Sun formed. They did this through accretion, where small particles accumulate into more massive objects. These massive boulder-sized objects, called planetesimals, continued to merge together into larger entities, sometimes through collisions. Eventually, through repeated mergers and collisions, the inner Solar System was populated by four rocky planets.

But the new research suggests that the collisions played out much differently than thought and that objects collided with each other several times, in a series of hit and runs, before merging. This research fills some stubborn holes in our current understanding.

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Apollo Rocks Reveal the Moon’s Early History

During the Apollo Era, one of the most important operations conducted by astronauts was sample-returns, where lunar rocks were procured and brought back to Earth. The study of these rocks revealed a great deal about the composition, structure, and geological history of the Moon. This led to profound discoveries, including the presence of water on the Moon and the fact that both Earth and its only satellite formed together.

Over time, scientists have taken advantage of new techniques and technology to conduct more in-depth analyses to learn more about the formation and evolution of the Moon. Recently, a team of researchers from Brown University and the Carnegie Institution for Sciences (CIS) examined some of these samples for sulfur isotopes to shed new light on the early history of the Moon and its evolution.

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The Moon Might Have Formed a Little Later than Originally Believed

According to the Giant Impact Hypothesis, the Moon formed when a Mars-sized object (named Theia) collided with Earth billion years ago, at a time when the Earth was still a ball of magma. This event not only led to the Earth-Moon system we recognize today, it is also beleived to have led to the differentiation of the Earth’s core region into an molten Outer Core and a solid Inner Core.

However, there has been an ongoing debate as to the timing of this impact and how long the subsequent formation of the Moon took place. According to a new study by a team of German researchers, the Moon formed from a magma ocean that took up to 200 million years to solidify. This means that the Moon finished forming about 4.425 billion years ago, or 100 million years later than previously thought.

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New Study Shows the Earth and Moon are not so Similar After All

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.

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The Moon is Older Than Scientists 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.

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When the Impact that Created the Moon Happened, the early Earth was still a ball of magma

The chemicals that made life possible on Earth may have come from another planet that collided with Earth, forming the Moon. Image Credit: Rice University

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.

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One of the Oldest Earth Rocks Turned up on the Moon, of all Places

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.

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Forming Dense Metal Planets like Mercury is Probably Pretty Difficult and Rare in the Universe

The planet Mercury, the closet planet to our Sun, is something of an exercise in extremes. Its days last longer than its years and at any given time, its sun-facing side is scorching hot while its dark side is freezing cold. It is also one of the least understood planets in our Solar System. While it is a terrestrial (i.e. rocky) planet like Earth, Venus and Mars, it has a significantly higher iron-to-rock ratio than the others.
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Was There a Time When the Moon was Habitable?

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).

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