A Cataclysmic Collision Formed the Moon, but Killed Theia

A Cataclysmic Collision Formed the Moon, but Killed Theia

Artist's impression of a Mars-sized object crashing into the Earth, starting the process that eventually created our Moon. Credit: Joe Tucciarone

The Moon is the first object in space that fascinates we Earthlings. The Sun might be more prominent, but you can’t stare at the Sun without ocular damage. Anyone can gaze at the Moon, with or without binoculars or a telescope, and wonder where it came from and what it all means.New evidence from a team at UCLA is clarifying the story of the Moon’s origins. According to this research, the Moon was formed as a result of a massive collision between Earth and a “planet embryo” about the size of Mars called Theia. This collision happened about 100 million years after the Earth was formed. Published on January 29th in the journal Science, this new geological evidence strengthens the case for the collision model.The researchers compared Earth rocks with rocks retrieved from the Moon over the years. (Over 380kg of rocks have been brought back to Earth.) They found that these samples—collected on Apollo missions 12, 15, and 17—had the same chemical composition as seven rocks collected from Earth’s mantle, in Hawaii and Arizona. The key to the comparison lies in the nature of the oxygen atoms in the rocks.Oxygen is a highly reactive element. It is easily combined with other elements, and is the most common element in the Earth’s crust. There are several different oxygen isotopes present in the Earth’s crust, and on other bodies in the solar system. The amount of each isotope present on each body is the “fingerprint” that makes the formation of each body different.But the team at UCLA has shown that Earth and the Moon share the same cocktail of oxygen isotopes. They have the same fingerprint. This means that somehow, someway, their formation is linked. It can’t be pure coincidence. Says Edward Young, lead author of the new study, “We don’t see any difference between the Earth’s and the Moon’s oxygen isotopes; they’re indistinguishable.”So how did this happen? How do Earth and the Moon share the same oxygen fingerprint? Enter Theia, an embryonic planet that got in the way of Earth’s orbit around the Sun. And as the research shows, this collision had to be more than a glancing blow. The collision had to be direct and cataclysmic.This video shows how the collision would have played out.A glancing blow would mean that the Moon would be mostly made of Theia, and would therefore have a different oxygen isotope fingerprint than Earth. But the fact that the Earth and Moon are indistinguishable from each other means that Theia had to have been destroyed, or rather, had to become part of both the Earth and the Moon. “Theia was thoroughly mixed into the Earth and the Moon, and evenly dispersed between them. This explains why we don’t see a different signature of Theia in the Moon versus Earth,” said Young. If this collision had not taken place, our Solar System would look very different, with an additional rocky planet in the inner regions. We also would have no Moon, which would have changed the evolution of life on Earth. This collision theory, called the Theia Impact, or the Big Splash, has been around since 2012. But in 2014, a team of German researchers reported in Science that the Earth and Moon have different oxygen isotope ratios, which threw the collision formation theory into doubt. These new results confirm that it was a cataclysmic collision that gave birth to the Moon, and changed our Solar System forever.


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