What's the Earliest the Moon Could Have Formed?

Artist's impression of the giant impact that shaped the Earth and created the Moon. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

Astronomers are pretty sure they know where the Moon came from. In the early Solar System, a Mars-sized object dubbed Theia smashed into Earth. This cataclysmic collision knocked a huge mass of material into orbit, which coalesced and cooled into the Moon. But establishing exactly when this occurred is a difficult task. At the 55th annual Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LPSC 55) last month in The Woodlands, Texas, researchers proposed a new timeline of events that moves the giant impact earlier than previous predictions, at just 50 million years after the formation of the Solar System.

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This is How You Get Moons. An Earth-Sized World Just got Pummeled by Something Huge.

An MIT-led team has discovered evidence of a giant impact in the nearby HD 17255 star system, in which an Earth-sized terrestrial planet and a smaller impactor likely collided at least 200,000 years ago, stripping off part of one planet’s atmosphere. Credits:Image: Mark A. Garlick

Titanic collisions are the norm in young solar systems. Earth’s Moon was the result of one of those collisions when the protoplanet Theia collided with Earth some 4.5 billion years ago. The collision, or series of collisions, created a swirling mass of ejecta that eventually coalesced into the Moon. It’s called the Giant Impact Hypothesis.

Astronomers think that collisions of this sort are a common part of planet formation in young solar systems, where things haven’t settled down into predictability. But seeing any of these collisions around other stars has proved difficult.

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