Astronomy Now Home
Home Magazine Sky Chart Resources Store

On Sale Now!

The August 2014 issue of Astronomy Now is on sale! Order direct from our store (free 1st class post & to UK addresses). The Astronomy Now iPad/iPhone editions are now available worldwide on the App Store.

Top Stories

Earthshine used to test life detection method
...By imagining the Earth as an exoplanet, scientists observing our planet's reflected light on the Moon with ESO's Very Large Telescope have demonstrated a way to detect life on other worlds...

Solid buckyballs discovered in space
...Astronomers using NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope have detected a particular type of molecule, given the nickname “buckyball”, in a solid form for the first time...

Steamy water-world gets the Hubble treatment
...Hubble Space Telescope observations of a 7 Earth-mass planet find an unusual water-rich world swathed in a thick, steamy atmosphere...

The Moon gets a face-lift
Posted: 18 August 2011

Bookmark and Share

New analysis of lunar rocks suggests that Earth's Moon could be around 200 million years younger than previously thought.

The leading theory of our Moon's formation is that it was born from a giant impact between a Mars-sized body and the early Earth; the debris from this cataclysmic collision coalesced to form the Moon. As the Moon cooled it solidified into different mineral components, from which relative ages can be deduced.

The Moon formed in a giant impact event, but it could have happened several hundred million years later than previously thought. Image: Gemini Observatory/Lynette Cook.

In the giant impact model, a rock type called ferroan anorthosite (FAN) represents the oldest suite of crustal rocks, but accurately dating its age by analysing the isotopes of the radioactive elements lead and neodymium has been hampered by the very low concentrations of the elements used in the technique, and the fact that most old rocks of the lunar crust have been affected by later impacts. Furthermore, FAN is predominantly made of one mineral, plagioclase feldspar, but most applicable dating methods require at least two compositionally distinct minerals.

"We were lucky in finding a piece of sample 60025 that had an unusually large amount of the mineral pyroxene in addition to plagioclase," Richard Carlson of the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington tells Astronomy Now. "We used conventional techniques that have been gradually improved over the 40 years since the lunar landings to improve on previous dating attempts and we worked on a split of the sample that was mineralogically amenable to this study."

The refined analysis places the FAN's age at 4.36 billion years, significantly younger than the oldest estimated age of 4.568 billion years, equivalent to the age of the Solar System. The new, young age correlates with some of Earth's oldest minerals, suggesting that the oldest crusts on both Earth and Moon formed at approximately the same time, and that this time dates from shortly after the giant impact.

"Thermal models show that a molten Moon would crystallize to the point of forming a crust similar in composition to the rock we dated within a few hundred to a few thousand years," says Carlson. "If the Moon's crust did not form in this manner, then it is possible to likely that the age of this rock does not correspond to the age of the Moon."

The findings imply that either the Moon solidified a lot later than previous estimates, that the theory of lunar crust formation by a solidifying magma ocean is incorrect, or that the rocks studied do not represent the oldest type of lunar sample.

Carlson is confident that the team's findings strengthen the idea of a giant impact theory for the Moon's formation, however. "Theoretical models of planet accumulation allow a few moderately large planetesimals to survive for long times (100's of million years), so a "late" giant impact is somewhat expected in part because the consequences of earlier big impacts will be overprinted by the last big impact. There is no other obvious mechanism to form a Moon this young."

The research team was led by Lars E. Borg of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and the work is published in the 18 August issue of the journal Nature.

The Planets
From tiny Mercury to distant Neptune and Pluto, The Planets profiles each of the Solar System's members in depth, featuring the latest imagery from space missions. The tallest mountains, the deepest canyons, the strongest winds, raging atmospheric storms, terrain studded with craters and vast worlds of ice are just some of the sights you'll see on this 100-page tour of the planets.

Hubble Reborn
Hubble Reborn takes the reader on a journey through the Universe with spectacular full-colour pictures of galaxies, nebulae, planets and stars as seen through Hubble's eyes, along the way telling the dramatic story of the space telescope, including interviews with key scientists and astronauts.

3D Universe
Witness the most awesome sights of the Universe as they were meant to be seen in this 100-page extravaganza of planets, galaxies and star-scapes, all in 3D!


© 2014 Pole Star Publications Ltd.