September 26, 2016

Formation of the Moon

Formation of the Moon

Several mechanisms have been proposed for the Moon's formation 4.527 ± 0.010 billion years ago, some 30–50 million years after the origin of the Solar System. Recent research presented by Rick Carlson indicates a slightly lower age of between 4.40 and 4.45 billion years. These mechanisms included the fission of the Moon from Earth's crust through centrifugal force (which would require too great an initial spin of Earth), the gravitational capture of a pre-formed Moon (which would require an unfeasibly extended atmosphere of Earth to dissipate the energy of the passing Moon), and the co-formation of Earth and the Moon together in the primordial accretion disk (which does not explain the depletion of metals in the Moon). These hypotheses also cannot account for the high angular momentum of the Earth–Moon system.

The prevailing hypothesis today is that the Earth–Moon system formed as a result of a giant impact, where a Mars-sized body (named Theia) collided with the newly formed proto-Earth, blasting material into orbit around it that accreted to form the Moon.

This hypothesis perhaps best explains the evidence, although not perfectly. Eighteen months prior to an October 1984 conference on lunar origins, Bill Hartmann, Roger Phillips, and Jeff Taylor challenged fellow lunar scientists: "You have eighteen months. Go back to your Apollo data, go back to your computer, do whatever you have to, but make up your mind. Don't come to our conference unless you have something to say about the Moon's birth." At the 1984 conference at Kona, Hawaii, the giant impact hypothesis emerged as the most popular.

Before the conference, there were partisans of the three "traditional" theories, plus a few people who were starting to take the giant impact seriously, and there was a huge apathetic middle who didn’t think the debate would ever be resolved. Afterward there were essentially only two groups: the giant impact camp and the agnostics.

Giant impacts are thought to have been common in the early Solar System. Computer simulations modelling a giant impact are consistent with measurements of the angular momentum of the Earth–Moon system and the small size of the lunar core. These simulations also show that most of the Moon came from the impactor, not from the proto-Earth. However, more-recent tests suggest more of the Moon coalesced from Earth and not the impactor. Meteorites show that other inner Solar System bodies such as Mars and Vesta have very different oxygen and tungsten isotopic compositions to Earth, whereas Earth and the Moon have nearly identical isotopic compositions. Post-impact mixing of the vaporized material between the forming Earth and Moon could have equalized their isotopic compositions, although this is debated.

The large amount of energy released in the giant impact event and the subsequent re-accretion of material in Earth orbit would have melted the outer shell of Earth, forming a magma ocean. The newly formed Moon would also have had its own lunar magma ocean; estimates for its depth range from about 500 km (300 miles) to the entire radius of the Moon (1,737 km (1,079 miles)).

Despite its accuracy in explaining many lines of evidence, there are still some difficulties that are not fully explained by the giant impact hypothesis, most of them involving the Moon's composition.

In 2001, a team at the Carnegie Institute of Washington reported the most precise measurement of the isotopic signatures of lunar rocks. To their surprise, the team found that the rocks from the Apollo program carried an isotopic signature that was identical with rocks from Earth, and were different from almost all other bodies in the Solar System. Because most of the material that went into orbit to form the Moon was thought to come from Theia, this observation was unexpected. In 2007, researchers from the California Institute of Technology announced that there was less than a 1% chance that Theia and Earth had identical isotopic signatures. Published in 2012, an analysis of titanium isotopes in Apollo lunar samples showed that the Moon has the same composition as Earth, which conflicts with what is expected if the Moon formed far from Earth's orbit or from Theia. Variations on the giant impact hypothesis may explain this data.

Image Credit: Dana Berry, Robin Canup, SWRI
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1 comment:

  1. Great Art work, and the accompanying text is enjoyable. Occasionally, a hyperlink within the text would be an extra bonus. "High angular momentum" Off to Google what exactly that means, in this context. (Hey, I'm just a simple fellow.)