New twist on lunar origin

English: Giant impact - artist impression. Čes...

Artistic impression of the moon-forming giant impact. (credit: Wikipedia)

Although a few would-be space faring countries have ambitions, a post-Apollo crewed mission to the Moon is unlikely for quite a while. Yet moon-struck curiosity goes on: currently there is a surge in re-examining the lunar samples brought back more than 40 years ago. The Lunar Sample Laboratory Facility in Houston holds about a third of a ton of rock and regolith. I suppose part of the reason why lunar rocks are being re-analysed – in fact some for the first time – is because new or improved methods are available, but frustration among  a growing community of planetary geochemists having little more than meteorites to peer at probably plays a role as well. Since Hartman and Davis first suggested it, the giant impact theory for the Moon’s origin has dominated geochemical ideas. Most tangible is that of a magma ocean, floated plagioclase crystals from its fractional crystallisation probably having formed the glaring white lunar highlands composed of anorthosite. More subtle are ideas about what happened to the Mars-sized planet that did the damage to Earth and flung vaporised rock into orbit to accrete into the new Moon, and the effects of the stupendous energy on the geochemistry of all three bodies. Directed at all that is new research on isotopes of zinc (Paniello, R.C. et al. 2012. Zinc isotope evidence for the origin of the Moon. Nature, v. 490, p. 376-379).

The focus on zinc is because it is easily vaporised compared with more refractory materials, such as calcium an titanium, and as well as being ‘volatile’ it has five naturally occurring isotopes with relative atomic masses of 64 (the most abundant), 66, 67, 68 and 70. In general, isotopes of an element behave in slightly different ways during geological and cosmological processes, which changes their proportions in the products; a process known as ‘mass-fractionation’. Paniello and colleagues from Washington University, Missouri and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, California USA found that Moon rocks are enriched in the heavier isotopes of zinc yet depleted in total zinc compared with terrestrial rocks and meteorites supposed to have come from Mars. Unlike those two planets the Moon’s zinc deviates from its abundance relative to other elements recorded by chondritic meteorites. This zinc depletion tallies with volatile loss from incandescent vapour blurted from the colliding planets. But it doesn’t help with the detailed predictions from the giant-impact model. A variety of scenarios suggest that the Moon should be made from remnants of the inbound impactor’s mantle, yet studies of other elements’ isotopes indicate that the Moon is rather Earth-like. But not those of zinc, so it looks like they have to be explained by a complete rethink of the whole hypothesis (Elliott, T. 2012. Galvanized lunacy. Nature, v. 490, p. 346-7).

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