Neptune-Sized Exomoon Found Orbiting a Jupiter-Sized Planet?

Finding planets beyond our Solar System is already tough, laborious work. But when it comes to confirmed exoplanets, an even more challenging task is determining whether or not these worlds have their own satellites – aka. “exomoons”. Nevertheless, much like the study of exoplanets themselves, the study of exomoons presents some incredible opportunities to learn more about our Universe.

Of all possible candidates, the most recent (and arguably, most likely) one was announced back in July 2017. This moon, known as Kepler-1625 b-i, orbits a gas giant roughly 4,000 light years from Earth. But according to a new study, this exomoon may actually be a Neptune-sized gas giant itself. If true, this will constitute the first instance where a gas giant has been found orbiting another gas giant.

The study, titled “The Nature of the Giant Exomoon Candidate Kepler-1625 b-i“, recently appeared in the scientific journal Astronomy and Astrophysics. The study was conducted by René Heller, an astrophysicist from the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, who examined lightcurves obtained by the Kepler mission to place constraints on the exomoon’s mass and determine its true nature.

An artist’s conception of a habitable exomoon orbiting a gas giant. Credit: NASA

Within the Solar System, moons tell us much about their host planet’s formation and evolution. In the same way, the study of exomoons is likely to provide insight into extra-solar planetary systems. As Dr. Heller explained to Universe Today via email, these studies could also shed light on whether or not these systems have habitable planets:

Moons have proven to be extremely helpful to study the formation and evolution of the planets in the solar system. The Earth’s Moon, for example, was key to set the initial astrophysical conditions, such as the total mass of the Earth and the Earth’s primordial spin state, for what has become our habitable environment. As another example, the Galilean moons around Jupiter have been used to study the conditions of the primordial accretion disk around Jupiter from which the planet pulled its mass 4.5 billion years ago. This accretion disk has long gone, but the moons that formed within the disk are still there. And so we can use the moons, in particular their contemporary composition and water contents, to study planet formation in the far past.”

When it comes to the Kepler-1625 star system, previous studies were able to produce estimates of the radii of both Kepler-1625 b and its possible moon, based on three observed transits it made in front of its star. The light curves produced by these three observed transits are what led to the theory that Kepler-1625 had a Neptune-size exomoon orbiting it, and at a distance of about 20 times the planet’s radius.

But as Dr. Heller indicated in his study, radial velocity measurements of the host star (Kepler-1625) were not considered, which would have produced mass estimates for both bodies. To address this, Dr. Heller considered various mass regimes in addition to the planet and moon’s apparent sizes based on their observed signatures. Beyond that, he also attempted to place the planet and moon into the context of moon formation in the Solar System.

Artist’s impression of an exomoon orbiting a gas giant (left) and a Neptune-sized exoplanet (right). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The first step, accroding to Dr. Heller, was to conduct estimates of the possible mass of the exomoon candidate and its host planet based on the properties that were shown in the transit lightcurves observed by Kepler.

“A dynamical interpretation of the data suggests that the host planet is a roughly Jupiter-sized (“size” in terms of radius) brown dwarf with a mass of almost 18 Jupiter masses,” he said. “The uncertainties, however, are very large mostly due to the noisiness of the Kepler data and due to the low number of transits (three). In fact, the host object could be a Jupiter-like planet or even be a moderate-sized brown dwarf of up to 37 Jupiter masses. The mass of the moon candidate ranges somewhere between a super-Earth of a few Earth masses and Neptune’s mass.”

Next, Dr. Heller compared the relative mass of the exomoon candidate and Kepler-1625 b and compared this value to various planets and moons of the Solar System. This step was necessary because the moons of the Solar System show two distinct populations, based the mass of the planets compared to their moon-to-planet mass ratios. These comparisons indicate that a moon’s mass is closely related to how it formed.

For instance, moons that formed through impacts – such as Earth’s Moon, and Pluto’s moon Charon – are relatively heavy, whereas moons that formed from a planet’s accretion disk are relatively light. While Jupiter’s moon Ganymede is the most massive moon in the Solar System, it is rather diminutive and tiny compared to Jupiter itself – the largest and most massive body in the Solar System.

Artist’s impression of the view from a hypothetical moon around a exoplanet orbiting a triple star system. Credit: NASA

In the end, the results Dr. Heller obtained proved to be rather interesting. Basically, they indicated that Kepler-1625 b-i cannot be definitively placed in either of these families (heavy, impact moons vs. lighter, accretion moons). As Dr. Heller explained:

“[T]]he most reasonable scenarios suggest that the moon candidate is more of the heavy kind, which suggests it should have formed through an impact. However, this exomoon, if real, is most likely gaseous. The solar system moons are all rocky/icy bodies without a significant gas envelope (Titan has a thick atmosphere but its mass is negligible). So how would a gas giant moon have formed through an impact? I don’t know. I don’t know if anybody knows.

“Alternatively, in a third scenario, Kepler-1625 b-i could have formed through capture, but this implies a very unlikely progenitor planetary binary system, from which it was pulled into a bound orbit around Kepler-1625 b, while its former planetary companion was ejected from the system.”

What was equally interesting were the mass estimates for Keple-1625 b, which Dr. Heller averaged to be 19 Jupiter masses, but could be as high as 112 Jupiter Masses. This means that the host planet could be anything from a gas giant that is just slightly larger than Saturn to a Brown Dwarf or even a Very-Low-Mass-Star (VLMS). So rather than a gas giant moon orbiting a gas giant, we could be dealing with a gas giant moon orbiting a small star, which together orbit a larger star!

An artist’s conception of a T-type brown dwarf. Credit: Tyrogthekreeper/Wikimedia Commons.

It’s the stuff science fiction is made of! And while this study cannot provide exact mass constraints on Keplder-1625 b and its possible moon, its significance cannot be denied. Beyond providing astrophysicists with the first possible example of a gas giant moon, this study is of immense significance as far as the study of exoplanet systems is concerned. If and when Kepler-1625 b-i is confirmed, it will tell us much about the conditions under which its host formed.

In the meantime, more observations are needed to confirm or rule out the existence of this moon. Fortunately, these observations will be taking place in the very near future. When Kepler-1625 b makes it next transit – on October 29th, 2017 – the Hubble Space Telescope will be watching! Based on the light curves it observes coming from the star, scientist should be able to get a better idea of whether or not this mysterious moon is real and what it looks like.

“If the moon turns out to be a ghost in the data, then most of this study would not be applicable to the Kepler-1625 system,” said Dr. Heller. “The paper would nevertheless present an example study of how to classify future exomoons and how to put them into the context of the solar system. Alternatively, if Kepler-1625 b-i turns out to be a genuine exomoon, then my study suggests that we have found a new kind of moon that has a very different formation history than the moons we know as of today. Certainly an exquisite riddle for astrophysicists to solve.”

The study of exoplanet systems is like pealing an onion, albeit in a dark room with the lights turned off. With every successive layer scientists peel back, the more mysteries they find. And with the deployment of next-generation telescopes in the near future, we are bound to learn a great deal more!

Further Reading: Astronomy and Astrophysics

Through The Nuclear Looking Glass: The Moon & The Bomb

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.

The study was led by James Day – a professor of geoscience at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego. Along with his colleagues – who hail from the Paris Institute of Earth Physics, the McDonnell Center for the Space Sciences, and NASA’s Johnson Space Center – they examined samples of glass retrieved from the Trinity test site to determine their chemical compositions.

A frame of the ‘Trinity’ fireball, taken .025 seconds after the detonation of the atomic bomb. Credit: US Govt. Defense Threat Reduction Agency

This glass, known as trinite, was created when the plutonium bomb was detonated at the Trinity test site in 1945 as part of the Manhattan Project. To a distance of 350 meters (1,100 feet) from ground zero, arkosic sand (which is primarily composed of quartz grains and feldspar) was converted to green-colored glass by the extreme heat and pressure caused by the massive explosion.

For years, scientists have been studying these glass deposits, which they determined was the result of sand being sucked up into the explosion, and then rained down as molten liquid onto the surface. When Day and his colleagues examined it, they noted that samples of the glass were depleted of zinc and other volatile elements – which are known to evaporate under extreme heat and pressure – depending on how far they were from ground zero.

According to their study, which was published in Science Advances on February 8th, 2017, samples of trinite that were obtained between 10 and 250 meters (30 to 800 feet) from the blast site were depleted of these elements far more than samples that were taken from farther away. In addition, the isotopes of zinc that remained were heavier and less-reactive than in others.

They then compared these results to studies performed on lunar rocks, which showed a similar depletion of volatile elements. From this, they determined that similar heat and pressure conditions existed at one time on the Moon which caused these elements to evaporate. This is consistent with the theory that a massive impact took place in the past that turned the Moon’s surface into an ocean of magma.

A huge impact may have formed the Moon, but other large impacts could have determined the makeup of Earth and other planetary bodies. Image Credit: Joe Tucciarone

As Day explained in a UC San Diego press release:

“The results show that evaporation at high temperatures, similar to those at the beginning of planet formation, leads to the loss of volatile elements and to enrichment in heavy isotopes in the left over materials from the event. This has been conventional wisdom, but now we have experimental evidence to show it.”

While the predominant theory since the 1980s has been the Giant impact hypothesis, the debate has been ongoing and subject to new findings. For example, back in January of 2017, a new study published in Nature Geoscience – which was led by by Raluca Rufu of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel – indicated that the Moon may have been the result of many smaller collisions.

Using computer simulations, the Weizmann team found that multiple small impacts could have formed many moonlets around Earth which would have then coalesced to create the Moon. But by showing that volatile elements undergo the same kinds of reactions to heat and pressure, regardless of where the reaction takes place, Day and his colleagues have offered some solid evidence that points towards a single impact event.

This study is just the latest in a series that is helping Earth scientists to put constraints on when and how the Moon formed, which are also helping us to get a better understanding of the history of the Solar System and its formation.

Further Reading: Science Advances, UCSD

Interesting Facts About The Moon

Shining like a beacon in Earth’s sky is the Moon. We’ve seen so much of it in our lifetimes that it’s easy to take it for granted; even the human landings on the Moon in the 1960s and 1970s were eventually taken for granted by the public.

Fortunately for science, we haven’t stopped looking at the Moon in the decades after Neil Armstrong took his first step. Here are a few things to consider about Earth’s closest big neighbor.

Continue reading “Interesting Facts About The Moon”

Solar System History: How Was the Earth Formed?

Winter Solstice


Just how did the Earth — our home and the place where life as we know it evolved — come to be created in the first place? In some fiery furnace atop a great mountain? On some divine forge with the hammer of the gods shaping it out of pure ether? How about from a great ocean known as Chaos, where something was created out of nothing and then filled with all living creatures?

If any of those accounts sound familiar, they are some of the ancient legends that have been handed down through the years that attempt to describe how our world came to be. And interestingly enough, some of these ancient creation stories contain an element of scientific fact to them.

When it comes to how the Earth was formed, forces that can only be described as fiery, chaotic, and indeed godlike, were involved. However, in the past few centuries, research and refinements made in what is today known as Earth Sciences have allowed scientists to assemble a more empirical and scientific understanding of how our world was formed.

Basically, scientists have ascertained that several billion years ago our Solar System was nothing but a cloud of cold dust particles swirling through empty space. This cloud of gas and dust was disturbed, perhaps by the explosion of a nearby star (a supernova), and the cloud of gas and dust started to collapse as gravity pulled everything together, forming a solar nebula — a huge spinning disk. As it spun, the disk separated into rings and the furious motion made the particles white-hot.

The center of the disk accreted to become the Sun, and the particles in the outer rings turned into large fiery balls of gas and molten-liquid that cooled and condensed to take on solid form. About 4.5 billion years ago, they began to turn into the planets that we know today as Earth, Mars, Venus, Mercury, and the outer planets.

The first era in which the Earth existed is what is known as the Hadean Eon. This name comes from the Greek word “Hades” (underworld), which refers to the condition of the planet at the time. This consisted of the Earth’s surface being under a continuous bombardment by meteorites and intense volcanism, which is believed to have been severe due to the large heat flow and geothermal gradient dated to this era.

Outgassing and volcanic activity produced the primordial atmosphere, and evidence exists that liquid water existed at this time, despite the conditions on the surface. Condensing water vapor, augmented by ice delivered by comets, accumulated in the atmosphere and cooled the molten exterior of the planet to form a solid crust and produced the oceans.

It was also during this eon – roughly 4.48 billion years ago (or 70–110 million years after the start of the Solar System) – that the Earth’s only satellite, the Moon, was formed. The most common theory, known as the “giant impact hypothesis” proposes that the Moon originated after a body the size of Mars (sometimes named Theia) struck the proto-Earth a glancing blow.

It is believed that 4.4 billion years ago, a celestial body (Theia) slammed into Earth and produced the Moon. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
It is believed that 4.4 billion years ago, a celestial body (Theia) slammed into Earth and produced the Moon. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The collision was enough to vaporize some of the Earth’s outer layers and melt both bodies, and a portion of the mantle material was ejected into orbit around the Earth. The ejecta in orbit around the Earth condensed, and under the influence of its own gravity, became a more spherical body: the Moon.

The Hadean Eon ended roughly 3.8 billion years ago with the onset of the Archean age. Much like the Hadean, this eon takes it name from a ancient Greek word, which in this case means “beginning” or “origin.” This refers to the fact that it was during this period that the Earth had cooled significantly and life forms began to evolve.

Most life forms today could not have survived in the Archean atmosphere, which lacked oxygen and an ozone layer. Nevertheless, it is widely understood that it was during this time that most primordial life began to take form, though some scientists argue that many lifeforms may have occurred even sooner during the late Hadean.

At the beginning of this Eon, the mantle was much hotter than it is today, possibly as high as 1600 °C (2900 °F). As a result, the planet was much more geologically active, processes like convection and plate tectonics occurred much faster, and subduction zones were more common. Nevertheless, the presence of sedimentary rock date to this period indicates an abundance of rivers and oceans.

The super-continent Pangea during the Permian period (300 - 250 million years ago). Credit: NAU Geology/Ron Blakey
The super-continent Pangea during the Permian period (300 – 250 million years ago). Credit: NAU Geology/Ron Blakey

The first larger pieces of continental crust are also dated to the late Hadean/early Achean Eons. What is left of these first small continents are called cratons, and these pieces of crust form the cores around which today’s continents grew. As the surface continually reshaped itself over the course of the ensuing eons, continents formed and broke up.

The continents migrated across the surface, occasionally combining to form a supercontinent. Roughly 750 million years ago, the earliest-known supercontinent called Rodinia began to break apart, then recombined 600 – 540 million years ago to form Pannotia, then finally Pangaea. This latest supercontinent broke apart 180 million years ago, eventually settling on the configuration that we know today. (See graphics from Geology.com here)

Since that time, a mere blip on the geological time scale, all the events that we consider to be “recent history” took place. The dinosaurs ruled and then died, mammals achieved ascendancy, hominids began to slowly evolve into the species we know as homo sapiens, and civilization emerged. And it all began with a lot of dust, fire, and some serious impacts. From this, the Sun, Moon, Earth, and life as we know it were all created.

We have written many articles about the Earth for Universe Today. Here’s an article about the temperature of Earth, and here are some facts about the planet Earth.

If you’d like more info on Earth, check out NASA’s Solar System Exploration Guide on Earth. And here’s a link to NASA’s Earth Observatory.

We’ve also recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast all about planet Earth. Listen here, Episode 51: Earth.

Further reading: Windows to the Universe, BBC.

Earth May Have Lost Some Primoridial Atmosphere to Meteors

Earth's Hadean Eon is a bit of a mystery to us, because geologic evidence from that time is scarce. Researchers at the Australian National University have used tiny zircon grains to get a better picture of early Earth. Credit: NASA

During the Hadean Eon, some 4.5 billion years ago, the world was a much different place than it is today. As the name Hades would suggest (Greek for “underworld”), it was a hellish period for Earth, marked by intense volcanism and intense meteoric impacts. It was also during this time that outgassing and volcanic activity produced the primordial atmosphere composed of carbon dioxide, hydrogen and water vapor.

Little of this primordial atmosphere remains, and geothermal evidence suggests that the Earth’s atmosphere may have been completely obliterated at least twice since its formation more than 4 billion years ago. Until recently, scientists were uncertain as to what could have caused this loss.

But a new study from MIT, Hebrew Univeristy, and Caltech indicates that the intense bombardment of meteorites in this period may have been responsible.

This meteoric bombardment would have taken place at around the same time that the Moon was formed. The intense bombardment of space rocks would have kicked up clouds of gas with enough force to permanent eject the atmosphere into space. Such impacts may have also blasted other planets, and even peeled away the atmospheres of Venus and Mars.

In fact, the researchers found that small planetesimals may be much more effective than large impactors –  such as Theia, whose collision with Earth is believed to have formed the Moon – in driving atmospheric loss. Based on their calculations, it would take a giant impact to disperse most of the atmosphere; but taken together, many small impacts would have the same effect.

Artist's concept of a collision between proto-Earth and Theia, believed to happened 4.5 billion years ago. Credit: NASA
Artist’s concept of a collision between proto-Earth and Theia, believed to happened 4.5 billion years ago. Credit: NASA

Hilke Schlichting, an assistant professor in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, says understanding the drivers of Earth’s ancient atmosphere may help scientists to identify the early planetary conditions that encouraged life to form.

“[This finding] sets a very different initial condition for what the early Earth’s atmosphere was most likely like,” Schlichting says. “It gives us a new starting point for trying to understand what was the composition of the atmosphere, and what were the conditions for developing life.”

What’s more, the group examined how much atmosphere was retained and lost following impacts with giant, Mars-sized and larger bodies and with smaller impactors measuring 25 kilometers or less.

What they found was that a collision with an impactor as massive as Mars would have the necessary effect of generating a massive a shockwave through the Earth’s interior and potentially ejecting a significant fraction of the planet’s atmosphere.

However, the researchers determined that such an impact was not likely to have occurred, since it would have turned Earth’s interior into a homogenous slurry. Given the appearance of diverse elements observed within the Earth’s interior, such an event does not appear to have happened in the past.

A series of smaller impactors, by contrast, would generate an explosion of sorts, releasing a plume of debris and gas. The largest of these impactors would be forceful enough to eject all gas from the atmosphere immediately above the impact zone. Only a fraction of this atmosphere would be lost following smaller impacts, but the team estimates that tens of thousands of small impactors could have pulled it off.

An artistic conception of the early Earth, showing a surface pummeled by large impact, resulting in extrusion of deep seated magma onto the surface. At the same time, distal portion of the surface could have retained liquid water. Credit: Simone Marchi
Artist’s concept of the early Earth, showing a surface pummeled by large impacts. Credit: Simone Marchi

Such a scenario did likely occur 4.5 billion years ago during the Hadean Eon. This period was one of galactic chaos, as hundreds of thousands of space rocks whirled around the solar system and many are believed to have collided with Earth.

“For sure, we did have all these smaller impactors back then,” Schlichting says. “One small impact cannot get rid of most of the atmosphere, but collectively, they’re much more efficient than giant impacts, and could easily eject all the Earth’s atmosphere.”

However, Schlichting and her team realized that the sum effect of small impacts may be too efficient at driving atmospheric loss. Other scientists have measured the atmospheric composition of Earth compared with Venus and Mars; and compared to Venus, Earth’s noble gases have been depleted 100-fold. If these planets had been exposed to the same blitz of small impactors in their early history, then Venus would have no atmosphere today.

She and her colleagues went back over the small-impactor scenario to try and account for this difference in planetary atmospheres. Based on further calculations, the team identified an interesting effect: Once half a planet’s atmosphere has been lost, it becomes much easier for small impactors to eject the rest of the gas.

The researchers calculated that Venus’ atmosphere would only have to start out slightly more massive than Earth’s in order for small impactors to erode the first half of the Earth’s atmosphere, while keeping Venus’ intact. From that point, Schlichting describes the phenomenon as a “runaway process — once you manage to get rid of the first half, the second half is even easier.”

This gave rise to another important question: What eventually replaced Earth’s atmosphere? Upon further calculations, Schlichting and her team found the same impactors that ejected gas also may have introduced new gases, or volatiles.

“When an impact happens, it melts the planetesimal, and its volatiles can go into the atmosphere,” Schlichting says. “They not only can deplete, but replenish part of the atmosphere.”

The "impact farm:, an area on Venus marked by impact craters and volcanic activity. Credit: NASA/JPL
The “impact farm:, an area on Venus marked by impact craters and volcanic activity. Credit: NASA/JPL

The group calculated the amount of volatiles that may be released by a rock of a given composition and mass, and found that a significant portion of the atmosphere may have been replenished by the impact of tens of thousands of space rocks.

“Our numbers are realistic, given what we know about the volatile content of the different rocks we have,” Schlichting notes.

Jay Melosh, a professor of earth, atmospheric, and planetary sciences at Purdue University, says Schlichting’s conclusion is a surprising one, as most scientists have assumed the Earth’s atmosphere was obliterated by a single, giant impact. Other theories, he says, invoke a strong flux of ultraviolet radiation from the sun, as well as an “unusually active solar wind.”

“How the Earth lost its primordial atmosphere has been a longstanding problem, and this paper goes a long way toward solving this enigma,” says Melosh, who did not contribute to the research. “Life got started on Earth about this time, and so answering the question about how the atmosphere was lost tells us about what might have kicked off the origin of life.”

Going forward, Schlichting hopes to examine more closely the conditions underlying Earth’s early formation, including the interplay between the release of volatiles from small impactors and from Earth’s ancient magma ocean.

“We want to connect these geophysical processes to determine what was the most likely composition of the atmosphere at time zero, when the Earth just formed, and hopefully identify conditions for the evolution of life,” Schlichting says.

Schlichting and her colleagues have published their results in the February edition of the journal Icarus.

Further Reading: MIT News

Moon-Forming Crash Left A ‘Signal’ In Planet Earth

What physical evidence exists of a huge collision that formed our Moon and nearly blew the Earth apart, about 4.5 billion years ago? This is the leading theory for how the Moon came to be, but given it happened so long ago the physical evidence is scarce.

Readers may recall the story from last week talking about how oxygen in Moon rocks shows evidence of this crash. This week, there’s a new study  from the same conference that focuses on the other side of the puzzle piece: what can we see on planet Earth? Turns out there might be a “signal” showing us the way.

As the theory goes, the colliding body — which some researchers call “Theia” — would have created a cloud of fragments surrounding our planet that eventually coalesced into the Moon.

The new research says that evidence of this collision would have showed up in the mantle, a layer of the Earth’s interior, and could explain a puzzling difference in isotopes (types) of certain elements that was known before.

“The energy released by the impact between the Earth and Theia would have been huge, certainly enough to melt the whole planet,” stated research lead Sujoy Mukhopadhyay, an associate professor at Harvard University.

Layers of the Earth
Layers of the Earth

“But we believe that the impact energy was not evenly distributed throughout the ancient Earth. This means that a major part of the impacted hemisphere would probably have been completely vaporized, but the opposite hemisphere would have been partly shielded, and would not have undergone complete melting.”

The team said that the impact did not completely stir the mantle, which would explain why the ratio of isotopes of helium and nitrogen inside the shallow part of the mantle is much higher than the deep mantle.

They also analyzed two isotopes of xenon. Scientists know already that the material on the surface has a lower isotope ratio to what is inside, but what is new is comparing these isotopes pointed to an age of the collision: about 100 million years after the Earth formed.

The research was presented today at the Goldschmidt conference in Sacramento, California.

Source: Goldschmidt

Hulk Smash! Collision That Formed Our Moon Shows Up In Lunar Rocks, Study Says

Billions of years ago, so the theory goes, a Mars-sized body (sometimes called “Theia”) smashed into our young planet and caused a near-catastrophe. Earth fortunately survived the risk of blowing apart, and the fragments from the crash gradually coalesced into the Moon that we see today.

Even though this happened a heck of a long time ago, scientists believe they have found traces of Theia in lunar rocks pulled from the Apollo missions.

The isotopes or types of oxygen revealed in the new research appear to be different between the Earth and the Moon. And that’s important, because it implies that a body of different composition caused the changes. “If the Moon formed predominantly from the fragments of Theia, as predicted by most numerical models, the Earth and Moon should differ,” the study states.

An airplane at about 2,400 meters above the ground  passes in front of the Moon on its way to landing at the Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, France. Taken from about 70 km from Paris. Credit and copyright: Sebastien Lebrigand.
An airplane at about 2,400 meters above the ground passes in front of the Moon on its way to landing at the Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, France. Taken from about 70 km from Paris. Credit and copyright: Sebastien Lebrigand.

Scientists scanned samples from the Apollo 11, 12 and 16 missions with scanning electron microscopes that are more powerful than what was available in the 1960s and 1970s, when scientists first looked at these samples from the manned moon missions.

Before, the “resolution” of these microscopes couldn’t find any significant differences, but the new data reveals the moon rocks have 12 parts per million more oxygen-17 than the Earth rocks.

“The differences are small and difficult to detect, but they are there,” stated lead researcher Daniel Herwartz, who was formerly with the University of Gottingen and is now with the University of Cologne. “This means two things; firstly we can now be reasonably sure that the giant collision took place. Secondly, it gives us an idea of the geochemistry of Theia.”

The work was published in Science and will also be presented at the Goldschmidt geochemistry conference in California on June 11.

Isotopic Evidence of the Moon’s Violent Origins

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:)

Read more: What’s the Moon Made Of? Earth, Most Likely.

“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.”

Read more on the Washington University news release and at the UC San Diego news center.

Inset image: Cross-polarized transmitted-light image of a lunar rock. Photo by James Day, Scripps/UCSD

What’s the Moon Made Of? Earth, Most Likely.

[/caption]

Recent research on lunar samples has shown that the Moon may be made of more Earth than green cheese — if by “green cheese” you mean the protoplanet impactor that was instrumental in its creation.

It’s an accepted hypothesis that Earth’s moon was created during an ancient, violet collision between our infant planet and a Mars-sized world called Theia, an event that destroyed Theia and sent part of Earth’s crust and upper mantle into orbit as a brief-lived ring of molten material. This material eventually coalesced to form the Moon, and over the next 4.5 billion years it cooled, became tidally locked with Earth, accumulated countless craters and gradually drifted out to the respectable distance at which we see it today.

Theia’s remains were once assumed to have been a major contributor to the material that eventually formed the Moon.   Lunar samples, however, showed that the ratio of oxygen isotopes on the Moon compared to Earth were too similar to account for such a formation. Now, further research by a team led by scientists from The University of Chicago shows that titanium isotopes — an element much more refractive than oxygen — are surprisingly similar between the Moon and Earth, further indicating a common origin.

“After correcting for secondary effects associated with cosmic-ray exposure at the lunar surface using samarium and gadolinium isotope systematics, we find that the 50Ti/47Ti ratio of the Moon is identical to that of the Earth within about four parts per million, which is only 1/150 of the isotopic range documented in meteorites,” wrote University of Chicago geophysicist Junjun Zhang, lead author of the paper published in the journal Nature Geoscience on March 25.

If the Moon is more Earth than Theia, then what happened to the original impacting body? Perhaps it was made of heavier stuff that sunk deeper into the Moon, or was assimilated into Earth’s mantle, or got lost to space… only more research will tell.

But for now, you can be fairly sure that when you’re looking up at the Moon you’re seeing a piece of Earth, the cratered remnants of a collision that took place billions of years ago.

See the team’s paper here.

Image credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech