It is generally accepted that billions of years ago, the Earth collided with the planet Theia, the size of which is comparable to Mars, resulting in the formation of the Moon. Scientists have been building theories for decades about exactly how this process took place, but they have not yet been able to finally solve this riddle. However, another simulation showed one of the likely options.
A new computer simulation by scientists at the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Ames Research Center has shown that our planet’s moon could form in a matter of hours when material from Earth and Theia entered orbit after their collision. The simulations for this study used spatial grids with the highest possible resolution. As a result, it was found that simulations that used lower-resolution spatial grids could miss important aspects of such collisions, causing the overall picture to be distorted.
Understanding the origin of the Moon requires the use of different knowledge about the satellite, its mass, orbit, and the elements present in its composition. Based on these data, scenarios are being developed that could lead to the formation of the Moon in its current state. In the past, theories of the appearance of the moon explained some aspects of the properties of the satellite, such as mass and orbit, but with a number of serious caveats. One of the main mysteries was how to explain the similarity of the composition of the Moon and the Earth. Scientists can study materials by their isotopic composition, the chemical clue to how and where an object formed. Samples of lunar soil that have been studied in laboratories have a similar isotopic signature to terrestrial rocks, unlike samples from Mars or from other places in the solar system. This may indicate that most of the material that makes up the Moon was part of the Earth in the distant past.
Past simulations, in which Theia was sprayed into orbit after colliding with our planet and then mixed with a small amount of terrestrial material, now look less plausible. In this case, the similarity of lunar samples to Earth would not be so strong, unless Theia was similar in structure to the Earth, which is unlikely. Scientists believe that more terrestrial materials were used in the formation of the moon, especially the upper layers of the satellite, are more likely.
A new simulation has shown that the Moon could have formed within hours of the collision between Earth and Theia, rather than days or years as previously thought. To get closer to confirming or refuting this theory, scientists will need to study samples of lunar soil that should be delivered to our planet as part of NASA’s lunar program. In addition to studying the satellite itself, these data will help to better understand how our planet has evolved to eventually become what we see it now.
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