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A Smashing Moon


The moon and its gravitational “pull” on Earth plays an extremely important role in the oceans. Next to heating by solar radiation, lunar attraction may be the most important physical process to occur in the ocean. The moon acts to stir the oceans through the action of tides, which not only alter sea level at regular intervals but generate internal fluid motions that drive deep-sea circulation. The moon also provides a key signal to many marine animals, synchronizing the mating behavior of corals, the bioluminescent palolo worm and the beach-spawning California grunion, to name a few.



In the October 12, 2001, issue of Science, scientists using a new more accurate technique for measuring isotopes of oxygen reported on a re-analysis of moon rocks brought back by Neil Armstrong and his buddies. They found that the oxygen isotopes in moon rocks were nearly identical to oxygen isotopes in fresh mid-ocean ridge basalts, implying that the moon and Earth originated from the same source material.

What conclusion can be reached from the observation that the moon and the Earth are geologically identical?

These data lend strong support to the idea that the moon was created when a large planetary object called an impactor struck the infant Earth (aka the proto-Earth) and ejected the moon, kind of like what happens when you punch a jelly donut (like the kids on the television commercial). This impactor, called Theia after the daughter of the Greek goddess Gaia and her husband, the god Uranus)), was comparable in size to Mars and probably struck the Earth between 4.54 and 4.44 billion years ago. The Giant Impact model, as the impact origin of the moon has come to be known, predicts (assuming similar geological processes for Earth and moon) identical compositions for the Earth and moon. Hence, more than 30 years after humans first landed on the moon, scientists have confirmed that Earth and moon are the same rock.

The Giant Impact model (a conceptual model) for the origin of the moon also gets support from a recent computer model (a mathematical model) developed at the Southwest Research Institute and reported in Nature in February 2000. Sparing you the details, suffice it to say that for decades, scientists had been unable to reconcile the unusual orbital characteristics of the moon with a giant impact. Ward and Canup’s computer model resolved that discrepancy.



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