It isn’t easy to put the Solar System’s history together from the traces it leaves behind. Despite this, we are making progress bit by bit. Research on lunar meteorites suggests that the Moon and Earth formed from the same material 4.5 billion years ago, possibly following a cataclysmic collision. Researchers have proved at ETH Zurich that indigenous noble gases inherited from the Earth’s mantle are found on the Moon. This discovery provides valuable insights into how the Moon and, perhaps, the Earth were formed.
Moons have captivated humanity for millennia. But scientists did not begin to study it until Galileo’s time.
Numerous, much-debated theories have been put forward over nearly five centuries about how the Moon was formed.
The Moon’s origin story has now been illuminated by ETH Zurich geochemists, cosmologists, and petrologists.
As reported in Science Advances, the research team found that the Moon acquired helium and neon from Earth’s mantle.
As explained in a statement by ETH Zurich, the current discovery further constrains the favored “Giant Impact theory,” which suggests the Moon was formed after a massive collision between Earth and Mars-sized planet, frequently referred to as Theia.
As researchers revealed, they found that the isotopes of helium and neon trapped inside lunar meteorites recovered from Antarctica are identical to those found in the solar wind, despite never having been exposed to it. As a result of this and the presence of argon isotopes, these gases were likely transferred from Earth when the two bodies were one, several billions of years ago.
A meteorite from the Moon crashed in Antarctica
NASA provided Patrizia Will with six samples of lunar meteorites for her doctoral research at ETH Zurich.
Magma that welled up from the Moon’s interior and cooled rapidly formed the meteorites.
As they formed, additional basalt layers covered them, protecting them from cosmic rays, particularly solar wind. Along with other minerals found in magma, lunar glass particles were formed during the cooling process.
It was found that the glass particles contain the chemical fingerprints of helium and neon from the Moon’s interior (isotopic signatures). These findings strongly indicate that the Moon inherited the noble gases from our planet.
“Finding solar gases, for the first time, in basaltic materials from the Moon that are unrelated to any exposure on the lunar surface was such an exciting result,” says Will.
Asteroids continually pelt the lunar surface without an atmosphere to protect it. The meteorites were probably ejected from the middle layers of the lava flow by a high-energy impact, like the vast lunar mart plains.
Eventually, the fragments of rock made their way to Earth as meteorites. Meteorite samples are often picked up in North African deserts or, in the case of this meteorite, in Antarctica’s “cold desert,” where they are easier to spot.
The discovery was made using a state-of-the-art mass spectrometer named “Tom Dooley” in the Noble Gas Laboratory at ETH Zurich.
To minimize interference with the sensitive equipment, earlier researchers suspended it from the lab ceiling to avoid interference from vibrations, and this is where the instrument got its name from.
Researchers were able to measure submillimetre glass particles from meteorites using the Tom Dooley instrument and rule out the solar wind as a source of the detected gases.
In contrast to their expectations, they found a much higher abundance of helium and neon.
Since the Tom Dooley is so sensitive, it is the only instrument in the world that can detect such tiny levels of neon and helium.
Using it, these noble gases were detected in 7 billion-year-old grains in the Murchison meteorite – currently, the oldest solid matter known.
NASA’s 70,000 approved meteorites represent a major step forward, as we now know where to look inside them.
“I am strongly convinced that there will be a race to study heavy noble gases and isotopes in meteoritic materials,” says ETH Zurich Professor Henner Busemann, one of the world’s leading scientists in the field of extra-terrestrial noble gas geochemistry.
As a result, professor Busemann predicts researchers will soon search for noble gases like xenon and krypton that are harder to identify. Other volatile elements such as hydrogen and halogens will also be sought in the meteorites.
While these noble gases aren’t necessary for life, it would be interesting to know how they survived the violent and brutal formation of the moon.
The knowledge might allow geochemists and geophysicists to develop more general models that would explain how such volatile elements can survive planet formation and beyond.
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