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Jatan MehtaJuly 19, 2018

How the Apollo missions transformed our understanding of the Moon’s origin

Where did the Moon come from? The origin of our cosmic neighbor is a fundamental question in planetary science. From Galileo’s first telescopic observations of the Moon to humans walking on its surface, our understanding of its origins has come a long way—yet it is far from complete.

There are multiple hypotheses that have attempted to explain how the Moon came to be. For this article, we’ll focus on the most popular one — The Giant Impact Hypothesis (GIH).

The north pole of the Moon from Galileo

NASA / JPL-Caltech

The north pole of the Moon from Galileo
This view of the Moon's north pole is a mosaic assembled from 18 images taken by Galileo's imaging system through a green filter as the spacecraft flew by on December 7, 1992. The left part of the Moon is visible from Earth; this region includes the dark, lava-filled Mare Imbrium (upper left); Mare Serenitatis (middle left); Mare Tranquillitatis (lower left), and Mare Crisium, the dark circular feature toward the bottom of the mosaic. Also visible in this view are the dark lava plains of the Marginis and Smythii Basins at the lower right. The Humboldtianum Basin, a 650-kilometer impact structure partly filled with dark volcanic deposits, is seen at the center of the image. The Moon's north pole is located just inside the shadow zone, about a third of the way from the top left of the illuminated region.

According to the GIH, 4.5 billion years ago, when the planets had just formed, a titanic collision took place. A young, Mars-sized planet (named Theia) collided with the early Earth. The impact ejected a huge amount of material. While some of this material escaped into space, the rest of it stayed in orbit, and consolidated to form the Moon. Here is a simple diagram illustrating this:

Simplistic representation of the Giant Impact Hypothesis

Jatan Mehta

Simplistic representation of the Giant Impact Hypothesis

For decades, the consensus of the planetary science community has been that the GIH is the best model to explain the formation of the Moon and account for its properties. While scientific literature on evidences for the GIH are varied in nature, in this article we focus on the Apollo missions. The Apollo missions represent a crucial dataset because they allowed us to test long-standing hypotheses using multiple in situ measurements, thanks to hundreds of kilograms of samples that were brought back to Earth.

Data from the Apollo landings show that the Moon’s formation isn’t as simple as we first thought. The results have been difficult to reconcile and interpret. Let’s examine how the Apollo missions changed our understanding of the GIH.

Findings in support of the GIH

Magma ocean

An implication of the GIH is that the impact must have left the newly formed Moon in a molten state. It must have been encompassed in a vast magma ocean; the estimates for its depth are at least 500 kilometers. With time, this magma ocean would have crystallized and formed the mantle and crust of the Moon.

As crystallization of the magma ocean began, the heavier minerals (olivinepyroxene, etc.) would have sunk to form the lunar mantle. The lower density minerals, principally plagioclasewould float on top, crystallizing at a later stage to form the anorthosite crust. The GIH predicts that the elements in the magma that are incompatible would be sandwiched between the crust and mantle, forming what is known as a KREEP-rich magma. (KREEP is an acronym built from the letters (Potassium), REE (rare-earth elements) and (Phosphorus).)

Lunar crust formation

Lunar and Planetary Institute

Lunar crust formation

The basaltic rocks brought back from Apollo 11 contained millimetric fragments of rocks from the lunar highlands. The highlands represent material from the crust and the samples were found to be made of anorthosites. Moreover, KREEP-rich materials were also found in those samples. These findings all but confirmed the molten state of the ancient Moon, supporting the GIH.

The lunar core

Also supporting the GIH were three independent experiments on Apollo missions that gave insights into the Moon’s interior. Data from the Passive Seismic Experiments, the Laser Ranging Retroreflectors and the Lunar Surface Magnetometers constrained the radius of the lunar core to be less than 450 kilometers. That means the lunar core (solid core and liquid core combined) represents only about 25 percent of the Moon’s radius, in contrast to about 50 percent for other terrestrial bodies, including Earth.

Moon's internal structure

Kelvinsong on Wikimedia

Moon's internal structure

The GIH predicts that the Earth-Theia collision would result in Theia’s core getting absorbed into Earth’s core, leaving a smaller core for the Moon. The calculated size of the lunar core from these three independent experiments strongly agree with the GIH. It is also noteworthy that Earth has the highest density of all the planets in the solar system, which could be explained by the absorption of Theia’s core, given the proposed properties of the early Earth and Theia.

Volatile depletion

Another area of interest is volatiles—elements with low boiling points (nitrogen, water, carbon-dioxide, hydrogen, etc.). The low boiling points of volatiles mean that they deplete with time.

Large-scale volatile depletion on the Moon could have been due to two processes that existed at different times in the past. One is the evaporation of volatiles in the early formation era and the other is during ancient volcanism. The isotopes (different subatomic forms of the same element) found in present-day lunar volatiles can help us know the lunar history in this context.

Isotopes in volatiles deplete differently depending on the event, thereby telling us which of the above two processes was responsible for the volatile characteristics that we see now. Lighter isotopes of Zinc for example, are depleted in large amounts by evaporation during the formation of the Moon. But they are unaffected by volcanic processes.

In the lunar samples brought back to Earth, it was observed that the lighter isotopes of Zinc are less compared to the heavier ones, which means that large amounts of volatile depletion took place due to evaporation in the early formation era. The result fits in line with the GIH prediction of a Moon lacking in a large amount of volatiles. 

Findings against the GIH

Titanium isotopes

According to the GIH, if the Moon formed from the collision of two objects, it would inherit some of its material from Earth and some from Theia. One way to test that is to measure the titanium isotopic composition of the Moon and compare it to Earth’s. If the Moon is formed from both Earth’s and Theia’s materials as predicted, its titanium composition should be a mixture of both.

Titanium is a good element to measure because it doesn’t get vaporized easily and tends to remain solid or molten when exposed to high heat (which would have happened during early lunar formation). Thus, titanium should be in the same state it was early in the Moon’s history. 

The comparative analysis of titanium in the Apollo samples indicates that the Moon’s titanium came from Earth alone. In stark contrast to that result, meteorites found on Earth contain large variations in titanium isotopes, indicating their distinct and varied origins.

Lunar titanium

Adapted from Zhang et al. (2012)

Lunar titanium
The lunar samples containing Ti (Titanium) have the same value as the Earth samples, 150 times less than the spread in Ti values shown by meteorite samples.

The authors of a study from the University of Chicago had initially found that the titanium isotopic composition of lunar and Earth samples are different. The team then corrected the results for changes due to cosmic ray bombardment; the Moon is unprotected from cosmic rays due to a lack of an atmosphere or magnetic field. After the results were corrected, it was clear that the Moon had the same titanium composition as Earth. If this is true, how could the GIH be correct?

One explanation could be that Theia had the same composition as Earth. Computer simulations of the GIH collision by Caltech researchers in 2007 calculated the origin of various materials relative to the Sun and how they were distributed in the early solar system. Unfortunately, the likelihood of Theia having an identical isotopic composition to the Earth (and thus originating from the same source of materials) is less than one percent.

A shared water source for the Earth and the Moon

Much like the case with titanium, the isotopic compositions of lunar hydrogen and oxygen can be compared with that of Earth. The presence and origin of water in planetary interiors thus has important implications for understanding the evolution of planetary bodies. 

The volcanic glass samples brought back from Apollo 15 and 17 had minor quantities of water in them. The isotopic composition of hydrogen in water in Moon’s mantle is nearly identical to that of water in Earth’s mantle. Likewise, the Moon’s oxygen isotopic composition (measured from Apollo 11, 12, 15, 16 and 17 samples) also show identical natures to that of Earth. When compared to other Solar System objects, like Mars, the Earth-Moon system is thus found to be compositionally distinct and identical.

Oxygen isotopes for the Earth-Moon system and Mars

K. Pahlevan and D. Stevenson, Geological and Planetary Sciences Division, Caltech

Oxygen isotopes for the Earth-Moon system and Mars
Lunar composition is identical to that of the Earth.

This indicates that the process that formed the Moon involved objects that were created in this neighborhood of the Solar System, making the GIH even less feasible. The results also suggest that both the Earth and the Moon had a significant component of water early in their early histories, possibly from the beginning of accretion, thus sharing the same water source.The nature of water in the lunar interior is thus not compatible with the GIH.

These results have strongly opposed the GIH as an explanation of the Moon’s formation, leaving us with more knowledge, yet farther away from a conclusion.

The takeaway

While various other modifications to the GIH have been proposed to incorporate both the evidence and counter-evidence, the fact remains that the Moon’s origin is still very much a mystery. The Apollo missions were largely in similar geological areas and yet it completely turned our understanding of the Moon’s origins on its head.

To solve the puzzle of the Moon’s origin, which is so intricately tied with that of the Earth itself, we need more data. We need access to rocks that lie deeper under the lunar surface, that haven’t been affected by meteorite impacts, cosmic rays and the solar wind. We also need to understand the origin of water in lunar poles, figure out the waters’ geological ages and understand its thermal and chemical evolution.

In other words, what we need are more missions to the surface of the Moon.

Private sector capabilities are emerging for soft-landing lunar technology. The next steps for such entities is to evolve their technologies to allow landings at sites which pertain to larger scientific questions. Can we obtain samples from Shackleton Crater? Can we go to sites untouched by geological processes? What a profound success it would be to identify the origin of the Moon. For now, it remains a mystery. Things are seldom black or white in cutting-edge science. It’s all grey, much like the Moon itself.

Earthrise over the lunar horizon from Apollo 8


Earthrise over the lunar horizon from Apollo 8
Earth rose over the lunar horizon as Apollo 8 completed the first manned trip behind the far side of the Moon. The mission also returned the first live television coverage of the lunar surface, on December 24, 1968.

Thanks to Phil Stooke from University of Western Ontario for fact-checking this article.

Read more: solar system formation, the Moon, explaining science

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Jatan Mehta
Jatan Mehta

Science writer and officer for TeamIndus
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