Conditions in this structure are indescribably hellish; there is no surface, but instead clouds of molten rock, with every region of the cloud forming molten-rock raindrops. The moon grew inside this vapor, Lock said, before the vapor eventually cooled and left in its wake the Earth-moon system.
Given the structure’s unusual characteristics, Lock and Stewart thought it deserved a new name. They tried several versions before coining synestia, which uses the Greek prefix syn-, meaning together, and the goddess Hestia, who represents the home, hearth and architecture. The word means “connected structure,” Stewart said.
“These bodies aren’t what you think they are. They don’t look like what you thought they did,” she said.
Mike Zeng for Quanta Magazine
In May, Lock and Stewart published a paper on the physics of synestias; their paper arguing for a synestia lunar origin is still in review. They presented the work at planetary science conferences in the winter and spring and say their fellow researchers were intrigued but hardly sold on the idea. That may be because synestias are still just an idea; unlike ringed planets, which are common in our solar system, and protoplanetary disks, which are common across the universe, no one has ever seen one.
“But this is certainly an interesting pathway that could explain the features of our moon and get us over this hump that we’re in, where we have this model that doesn’t seem to work,” Lock said.
Let a Dozen Moons Bloom
Among natural satellites in the solar system, Earth’s moon may be most striking for its solitude. Mercury and Venus lack natural satellites, in part because of their nearness to the sun, whose gravitational interactions would make their moons’ orbits unstable. Mars has tiny Phobos and Deimos, which some argue are captured asteroids and others argue formed from Martian impacts. And the gas giants are chockablock with moons, some rocky, some watery, some both.
In contrast to these moons, Earth’s satellite also stands out for its size and the physical burden it carries. The moon is about 1 percent the mass of Earth, while the combined mass of the outer planets’ satellites is less than one-tenth of 1 percent of their parents. Even more important, the moon contains 80 percent of the angular momentum of the Earth-moon system. That is to say, the moon is responsible for 80 percent of the motion of the system as a whole. For the outer planets, this value is less than 1 percent.
The moon may not have carried all this weight the whole time, however. The face of the moon bears witness to its lifelong bombardment; why should we assume that just one rock was responsible for carving it out of Earth? It’s possible that multiple impacts made the moon, said Raluca Rufu, a planetary scientist at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel.
In a paper published last winter, she argued that Earth’s moon is not the original moon. It is instead a compendium of creation by a thousand cuts — or at the very least, a dozen, according to her simulations. Projectiles coming in from multiple angles and at multiple speeds would hit Earth and form disks, which coalesce into “moonlets,” essentially crumbs that are smaller than Earth’s current moon. Interactions between moonlets of different ages cause them to merge, eventually forming the moon we know today.
Planetary scientists were receptive when her paper was published last year; Robin Canup, a lunar scientist at the Southwest Research Institute and a dean of moon-formation theories, said it was worth considering. More testing remains, however. Rufu is not sure whether the moonlets would have been locked in their orbital positions, similar to how Earth’s moon constantly faces the same direction; if so, she is not sure how they could have merged. “That’s what we are trying to figure out next,” Rufu said.
Meanwhile, others have turned to another explanation for the similarity of Earth and the moon, one that might have a very simple answer. From synestias to moonlets, new physical models — and new physics — may be moot. It’s possible that the moon looks just like Earth because Theia did, too.
All the Same Stuff
The moon is not the only Earth-like thing in the solar system. Rocks like troctolite 76536 share an oxygen isotope ratio with Earth rocks as well as a group of asteroids called enstatite chondrites. These asteroids’ oxygen isotope composition is very similar to Earth’s, said Myriam Telus, a cosmochemist who studies meteorites at the Carnegie Institution in Washington, D.C. “One of the arguments is that they formed in hotter regions of the disk, which would be closer to the sun,” she said. They probably formed near where Earth did.
Some of these rocks came together to form Earth; others would have combined to form Theia. The enstatite chondrites are the detritus, remnant rocks that never combined and grew large enough to form mantles, cores and fully fledged planets.
In January, Nicolas Dauphas, a geophysicist at the University of Chicago, argued that a majority of the rocks that became Earth were enstatite-type meteorites. He argued that anything formed in the same region would be made from them, too. Planet-building was taking place using the same premixed materials that we now find in both the moon and Earth; they look the same because they are the same. “The giant impactor that formed the moon probably had an isotopic composition similar to that of the Earth,” Dauphas wrote.
David Stevenson, a planetary scientist at the California Institute of Technology who has studied lunar origins since the Theia hypothesis was first presented in 1974, said he considers this paper the most important contribution to the debate in the past year, saying it addresses an issue geochemists have grappled with for decades.
“He has put together a story which is quantitative; it’s a clever story, about how to look at the various elements that go into the Earth,” Stevenson said. “From that, he can back out a story of the particular sequence of Earth’s formation, and in that sequence, the enstatite chondrites play an important role.”
Not everyone is convinced, however. There are still questions about the isotopic ratio of elements like tungsten, Stewart points out. Tungsten-182 is a daughter of hafnium-182, so the ratio of tungsten to hafnium acts as a clock, setting the age of a particular rock. If one rock has more tungsten-182 than another, you can safely say the tungsten-filled rock formed earlier. But the most precise measurements available show that Earth’s and moon’s tungsten-halfnium ratios are the same. “It would take special coincidences for the two bodies to end up with matching compositions,” Dauphas concedes.
Jean Lachat/ University of Chicago (Dauphas portrait); Nicolas Dauphas (enstatite chondrite)
Clues on Other Worlds
Understanding the moon — our constant companion, our silvery sister, target of dreamers and explorers since time immemorial — is a worthy cause on its own. But its origin story, and the story of rocks like troctolite 76536, may be just one chapter in a much bigger epic.
“I see it as a window into a more general question: What happened when terrestrial planets formed?” Stevenson said. “Everybody is coming up short at present.”
Understanding synestias might help answer that; Lock and Stewart argue that synestias would have formed apace in the early solar system as protoplanets whacked into each other and melted. Many rocky bodies might have started out as puffy vapor halos, so figuring out how synestias evolve could help scientists figure out how the moon and other terrestrial worlds evolved.
More samples from the moon and Earth would help, too, especially from each mantle, because geochemists would have more data to sift through. They would be able to tell whether oxygen stored deep within Earth is the same throughout, or if three common oxygen isotopes preferentially hang out in different areas.
“When we say that Earth and the moon are very close to being identical in the three oxygen isotopes, we are making an assumption that we actually know what the Earth is, and we actually know what the moon is,” Stevenson points out.
New tweaks to solar system origin theories, which are often based on complex computer simulations, are also illuminating where planets were born and where they migrated. Scientists increasingly suggest we can’t count on Mars to tell this story, because it may have formed in a different area of the solar system than Earth, the enstatites and Theia. Stevenson said Mars should no longer be used as a barometer for rocky planets.
Ultimately, lunar scientists agree that the best answers may be found on Venus, the planet most like Earth. It may have had a moon in its youth, and lost it; it may be very similar to Earth, or not. “If we can get a lump of rock from Venus, we can answer this question [of the moon’s origins] very simply. But sadly, that is not on anyone’s priority list right now,” Lock said.
Absent samples from Venus, and without laboratories that can test the unfathomable pressures and temperatures at the heart of giant impacts, lunar scientists will have to keep devising new models — and revising the moon’s origin story.
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