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May 30, 2013: New ideas about the origin of the Earth and Moon

Posted on May 24, 2013 in Seminars

Sarah Stewart (Harvard)

In the standard model, Earth accreted via a series of giant impacts and the last giant impact produced the Moon and fully melted the Earth. The Moon and Earth are identical in multiple isotope systems that show significant variations between most meteorite groups and planetary bodies. Thus, the simplest explanation for the isotopic similarity is that the Moon and Earth’s mantle have a common origin. However, the canonical giant impact model predicts that the Moon is primarily composed of material from the impactor, which should have had a different isotopic signature than Earth. In addition, recent data from the deep mantle demonstrate that the early Earth was not completely mixed and preserves chemical heterogeneities established during Earth’s accretion. Previous Moon-formation studies assumed that the angular momentum after the impact was similar to present day, but N-body simulations of the growth of Earth-mass planets typically find higher spin rates at the end of accretion. I will present a new model for the origin of the Earth–Moon system. A giant impact onto a fast-spinning proto-Earth can produce a disk that is massive enough to form the Moon and composed primarily of material from Earth, but the system would have had more angular momentum than today. Subsequently, the excess angular momentum can be lost during tidal evolution of the Moon via an orbital resonance. The impact energy is primarily deposited in the impacted hemisphere, and the mantle of the post-impact Earth is stably stratified, which would inhibit immediate deep convective mixing. Hence, the Moon-forming impact need not destroy pre-existing chemical heterogeneities in the deep mantle of the proto-Earth. Finally, I will discuss implications for the volatile depletion on the Moon and the formation of Earth’s early atmosphere.