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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.