StarChild Question of the Month for October 2001

Question:

Where did the Moon come from?

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Answer:

Any theory which explains the existence of the Moon must naturally explain the following facts:

Various theories had been proposed for the formation of the Moon. Below these theories are listed along with the reasons they have since been discounted.

There is one theory which remains to be discussed, and it is widely accepted today.

The Giant Impactor Theory (sometimes called The Ejected Ring Theory): This theory proposes that a planetesimal (or small planet) the size of Mars struck the Earth just after the formation of the solar system, ejecting large volumes of heated material from the outer layers of both objects. A disk of orbiting material was formed, and this matter eventually stuck together to form the Moon in orbit around the Earth. This theory can explain why the Moon is made mostly of rock and how the rock was excessively heated. Furthermore, we see evidence in many places in the solar system that such collisions were common late in the formative stages of the solar system. This theory is discussed further below.

More About The Giant Impactor Theory

In the mid-1970s, scientists proposed the giant impact scenario for the formation of the Moon. The idea was that an off-center impact of a roughly Mars-sized body with a young Earth could provide Earth with its fast initial spin, and eject enough debris into orbit to form the Moon. If the ejected material came primarily from the mantles of the Earth and the impactor, the lack of a sizeable lunar core was easily understood, and the energy of the impact could account for the extra heating of lunar material required by analysis of lunar rock samples obtained by the Apollo astronauts.

For nearly a decade, the giant impact theory was not believed by most scientists. However, in 1984, a conference devoted to lunar origin prompted a critical comparison of the existing theories. The giant impact theory emerged from this conference with nearly consensus support by scientists, enhanced by new models of planet formation that suggested large impacts were actually quite common events in the late stages of terrestrial planet formation.

The basic idea is this: about 4.45 billion years ago, a young planet Earth -- a mere 50 million years old at the time and not the solid object we know today-- experienced the largest impact event of its history. Another planetary body with roughly the mass of Mars had formed nearby with an orbit that placed it on a collision course with Earth. When young Earth and this rogue body collided, the energy involved was 100 million times larger than the much later event believed to have wiped out the dinosaurs. The early giant collision destroyed the rogue body, likely vaporized the upper layers of Earth's mantle, and ejected large amounts of debris into Earth orbit. Our Moon formed from this debris.

artist's drawing of body hitting young earth to form our moon
Image Credit: Joe Tucciarone

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