CLOSE
Hagai Perets
Hagai Perets

Astronomers: Multiple Cosmic Collisions May Have Created Our Moon

Hagai Perets
Hagai Perets

It looks so tranquil up there. So still. But we know space is neither tranquil nor still. Our own Moon is no exception. New research suggests the Moon was the product of some very, very violent moshing: Around 4.5 billion years ago, a rowdy gang of stellar objects smashed into our young planet, creating the debris that would one day become the Moon. The astronomers published their report in the journal Nature Geoscience.

We’ve known for a while now that the Moon is made at least partially out of pieces from a banged-up Earth. But we’re still trying to sort out the details of the collision itself. At first, scientists thought Earth had been hit by one big object, like another planet. Then they thought there must have been a bunch of objects all striking around the same time. As we learned more, the single-impactor theory returned to prominence and stayed there for decades.

One 2016 study named the object—the planet Theia—and even the angle of impact. The researchers theorized that the extremely similar molecular makeup of Earth and the Moon could only have resulted from a head-on collision.

Other astronomers disagree. The authors of the new paper ran hundreds of simulations, and they argue it’s far more likely that Earth was walloped by a score of different objects called planetesimals. Each of the repeated impacts smashed up a huge amount of the young planet’s matter. That debris then drifted into orbit around Earth, where it settled into disks, which then resolved into little (gargantuan) chunks called moonlets. Over time, the baby moonlets merged into one single, spinning rock.

“Our model suggests that the ancient Earth once hosted a series of moons, each one formed from a different collision with the proto-Earth,” co-author Hagai Perets said in a statement. “It’s likely that such moonlets were later ejected, or collided with the Earth or with each other to form bigger moons.”

Perets says the moonlets could easily have crossed orbits with one another, smashed together, and been rolled up into larger bodies. “A long series of such moon-moon collisions could gradually build-up a bigger moon—the Moon we see today.”

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images
arrow
Space
Meteor Showers, a Supermoon, and the Solstice: A Guide to the December Night Sky
Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images
Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images

This has been a fantastic year for sky watching. Eclipses in particular had their day in the Sun, with celestial objects blotting each other out as if in competition. There was a penumbral lunar eclipse and an annular solar eclipse in February, and then in August, a partial lunar eclipse was followed up by a mind-blowing total solar eclipse. If you missed any or all of those events, don't lose heart: they will happen again and again and again, in your lifetime and beyond. Celestial mechanics guarantee it. The year isn't over yet, though, and December has a few wonderful events up its sleeve. Here are four things you should be on the lookout for in the skies above.

DECEMBER 3: THE ONLY SUPERMOON OF 2017

I know, supermoons are so 2016. There were six that year, if you don't recall. (I do, because I had to think of new things to write about every single one of them.) This year has been a bit less active in terms of super lunar events, with a total of zero must-see giant moons for your viewing pleasure. That changes on December 3 with the first and only supermoon of the year, and it has a great name at that: the Full Cold Supermoon. The "cold" part of the name, according to the Old Farmers Almanac, derives from Native American tradition. (They weren't being creative here; it's just really cold in December.) The "super" part is because the Moon will be at perigee—that is, the closest to Earth it's going to get in its orbit. The moon's orbit is not a perfect circle, meaning it sometimes appears larger in the sky than others.

Expect a moon that's about 14 percent larger than when it is at apogee (farthest from Earth), though, unless you are an obsessive moonwatcher, the larger size will be nearly imperceptible. My advice is to point at the moon when your friends are around and say something like, “Hey, check that out. I think that's a supermoon! You might not notice a difference, but I sure do. Compared to the moon at apogee, it's huge! Why, it's got to be 14 percent larger, at least. Wow!” Then change the subject quickly, because nobody likes a know-it-all.

DECEMBER 13–14: MORE THAN 100 METEORS PER HOUR

The Geminid meteor shower is considered the best meteor shower of the year, and it peaks after midnight between December 13 and 14. If you are in an area of low (or no) light pollution, and if you give your eyes an hour to adjust to total darkness, and if the weather is good (a lot of "ifs," but worth it if you can arrange things), you can expect to see more than 100 meteors per hour. Geminid meteors are a result of the Earth colliding into the debris field of the asteroid Phaethon, an unusual "rock comet" that leaves behind dust- and sand-sized particles as it circles the Sun. A speck of dust might not seem like much, but when the atmosphere of a 13,170,000,000,000,000,000,000,000-pound planet plows into it at tens of thousands of miles per hour, it is vaporized in a beautiful streak of light.

As if that isn't cool enough, on December 16, Phaethon itself will make its closest approach to Earth in 43 years! Yes, the Minor Planet Center officially considers Phaethon to be a "potentially hazardous object," but before you dust off your Y2K prepper supplies, know that the asteroid will be 27 times farther away than the Moon generally is from the Earth. Sadly, it is unlikely to affect the meteor shower in any measurable way.

DECEMBER 21: THE WINTER SOLSTICE

December 21 will play host to the longest night of the year. Why? Because the Earth's axis is tilted by about 23.5 degrees, and as we orbit the Sun, different latitudes are in direct sunlight. Presently, the southern hemisphere is “closer” to the Sun than the northern. On the 21st, the Tropic of Capricorn (latitude -23.5 degrees) will be in the overhead sun and will receive 13 hours, 27 minutes of daylight. The higher in latitude you go from the Tropic of Capricorn, the less daylight that part of the Earth will receive. The equator will get 12 hours of sunlight. The North Pole will get zero seconds of daylight. The Tropic of Cancer will get about 10.5 hours.

We call this the Winter Solstice, and it's when you'll find some of the best parties of the year. That much night, after all, and anything can happen. Starting on the 22nd, the days will begin to get longer in the northern hemisphere, with spring soon to follow.

DECEMBER 22: THE URSID METEOR SHOWER

Just before sunrise on the morning of December 22, as you're stumbling home from that killer Winter Solstice party, look up. Well, first find a spot with low light pollution and give your eyes time to adjust, and then look up. You will be treated to the annual Ursid meteor shower, here to ring out 2017—and not a minute too soon.

The Ursids are no Geminids; at best you'll only catch 10 meteors an hour, but because the Moon will be but a sliver, the natural skies should be nice and dark. Weather not cooperating? Don't worry. You should be able to catch an Ursid or two through December 25. (Note that on the night of the 24th, what you suspect is an Ursid might be a sleigh carrying cargo and an elderly, bearded man. A distinct red hue will help you distinguish the two. One is a shooting star. The other is Rudolph's nose.)

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
Big Questions
Why Is the Moon White?
iStock
iStock

Why is the moon white?

Dave Consiglio:

Because your eyes aren’t that great at brightness.

As many people have mentioned, the Moon is actually quite dark grey:

However, it sure looks white to me. So what gives?

OK, look at the picture above. Which square is darker, A or B? They’re the same color! Don’t believe me:

It turns out we determine brightness in a very relative way: Square A looks dark because it’s surrounded by lightness. Square B looks light because it’s surrounded by darkness.

Sound familiar?

The moon is quite dark, but it’s significantly brighter than the night sky. As a result, your brain assumes it’s actually quite bright, when really it’s not.

You can really see this during a lunar eclipse:

See how white the right side looks? See how dark (and red … that’s from the Earth’s atmosphere … you can ignore that) the left side looks?

Relative illumination makes a huge difference in our perception of color and brightness.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios