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Year Zero: the giant-impact hypothesis

On close examination, the light-coloured Highlands of the Moon look remarkably like an old sign by a North American road through hunting country: they are pocked by impact craters of every size. More than that, a lengthy period of bombardment is signified by signs that the craters themselves are cratered to form a chaotic landscape dominated by interlocking and overlapping circular feature. In contrast the dark basaltic plains, called maria (seas), are pretty smooth albeit with some craters. They are clearly much younger than the Highlands. The discovery by Apollo astronauts that the older lunar Highlands are made almost exclusively of calcic plagioclase feldspar was a major surprise, requiring an astonishing event to explain them. Such anorthosites may form by flotation of low-density feldspar from a cooling and crystallising basaltic magma. Yet to form the bulk of the Moon’s early crust from such materials requires not simply a deep magma chamber, but literally an ocean of molten material at least 200 km deep. The anorthosites also turned out to be far older than the oldest rocks on Earth, close to 4.5 billion years. The most likely explanation seemed to be that the melting resulted from a gargantuan collision between two protoplanets, the Earth’s forebear and another now vanished. This would have melted and partially vaporised both bodies. After this discovery the Moon was widely believed to have formed from liquid and vaporised rock flung into orbit around what became the Earth.

Artist’s depiction of a collision between two planetary bodies likely to have formed the Moon (Credit: Wikipedia)

Such a catastrophic model for joint formation of the Earth and Moon shortly after planets of the Solar System had formed is hard to escape, but it carries two major puzzles. First, Earth and Moon seem to have very similar, indeed almost the same chemistry: So what happened to the colliding planet? If it had been identical in composition to the proto Earth there is no problem, but a different composition would surely have left some detectable trace in a Moon-Earth geochemical comparison. Initial models of the collision suggested that the other planet (dubbed Theia) was about the size of Mars and should have contributed 70 to 90% of the lunar mass: the Moon-Earth geochemical difference should have been substantial The second issue raised in the early days of the hypothesis was that since the Moon seemed to be almost totally dry (at least, the first rock analyses suggested that), then how come the Earth had retained so much water?

For decades, after an initial flurry of analyses, the Apollo samples remained in storage. Only in the last 10 years or so, when the need to gee-up space exploration required some prospect of astronauts one more to be sent beyond Earth orbit, have the samples been re-examined. With better analytical tools, the first puzzle was resolved: lunar rocks do contain measurable amounts of water, so the impact had not entirely driven off volatiles from the Moon. The bulk geochemical similarity was especially puzzling for the isotopes of oxygen. Meteorites of different types are significantly ear-marked by their relative proportions of different oxygen isotopes, signifying to planetary scientists that each type formed in different parts of the early Solar System; a suggestion confirmed by the difference between those in meteorites supposedly flung from Mars and terrestrial oxygen isotope proportions. A clear target for more precise re-examination of the lunar samples, plus meteorites reckoned to have come from the Moon, is therefore using vastly improved mass spectrometry to seek significant isotopic differences (Harwartz, D. et al. 2014. Identification of the giant impactor Theia in lunar rocks. Science, v. 344, p. 1146-1150). It turns out that there is a 12 ppm difference in the proportion of 17Oin lunar oxygen, sufficient to liken Theia’s geochemistry to that of enstatite chondrites. However, that difference may have arisen by the Earth, once the Moon had formed, having attracted a greater proportion of carbonaceous-chrondrite material during the later stages of planetary accretion by virtue of its much greater gravitational attraction. That would also account for the much higher volatile content of the Earth.

The new data do help to support the giant-impact hypothesis, but still leave a great deal of slack in the big questions: Did Theia form in a similar orbit around the Sun to that of Earth; was the impact head-on or glancing; how fast was the closure speed; how big was Theia and more besides? If Theia had roughly the same mass as the proto-Earth then modelling suggests that about half the mass of both Moon and Earth would be made of Theia stuff, giving the Moon and post-impact Earth much the same chemistry, irrespective of where Theia came from. Were William of Ockham’s ideas still major arbiters in science, then his Razor would suggest that we stop fretting about such details. But continuing the intellectual quest would constitute powerful support for a return to the Moon and more samples…

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One response to “Year Zero: the giant-impact hypothesis

  1. This might be the right moment for a reasoned debate about the relative merits of a manned vs unmanned excursion to the moon (and by implication to Mars) to collect samples. Remote controlled collection and return could perhaps be tested on Earth, although since earth gravity is >> lunar, such a test might be too rigorous.

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