• Earth from the Moon.

Earth from the Moon. (Photo : NASA)

A new theory accounts for flaws in the accepted "giant impact hypothesis" of Moon formation and elegantly explains the Moon's orbit and composition.

The Moon is relatively big compared to the planet it orbits, and it's made of almost the same material, minus some more volatile compounds that evaporated long ago. That makes the Moon distinct from every other major object in the Solar System.

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"Every other body in the solar system has different chemistry," said Sarah Stewart, professor of earth and planetary sciences at the University of California, Davis and senior author on a paper published Oct. 31 in the journal, Nature.

The textbook theory of lunar formation has it that late in the formation of the solar system came the "giant impact" phase, when hot planet-size objects collided with each other.

A Mars-sized object grazed what would become the Earth, throwing off a mass of material from which the Moon condensed. This impact set the angular momentum for the Earth-Moon system, and gave the early Earth a five-hour day.

Over millennia, the Moon receded from the Earth and the rotation slowed to our current 24-hour day.

Scientists figured this out by looking at the Moon's current orbit, working out how rapidly angular momentum of the Earth-Moon system has been transferred by the tidal forces between the two bodies, and working backwards.

But there are some problems with the textbook theory. One is the Moon's surprisingly Earth-like composition. Another is that if the Moon condensed from a disk of material rotating around Earth's equator, it should be in orbit over the equator.

But the Moon's current orbit is tilted five degrees off the equator, meaning some more energy must have been put in to move it.

Stewart, her former postdoctoral fellow Matija Cuk (now a scientist at the SETI Institute in California), with Douglas Hamilton at the University of Maryland and Simon Lock, Harvard University, have come up with an alternative model.

In 2012, Cuk and Stewart proposed that some of the angular momentum of the Earth-Moon system could have been transferred to the Earth-Sun system. That allows for a more energetic collision at the beginning of the process.

In the new model, a high energy collision left a mass of vaporized and molten material from which the Earth and Moon formed. The Earth was set spinning with a two-hour day, its axis pointing towards the Sun.

Because the collision could have been more energetic than in the current theory, the material from Earth and the impactor would have mixed together, and both Earth and Moon condensed from the same material and therefore have a similar composition.

As angular momentum was dissipated through tidal forces, the Moon receded from the Earth until it reached a point called the "LaPlace plane transition," where the forces from the Earth on the Moon became less important than gravitational forces from the Sun.

This caused some of the angular momentum of the Earth-Moon system to transfer to the Earth-Sun system.

This made no major difference to the Earth's orbit around the Sun, but it did flip Earth upright. At this point, the models built by the team show the Moon orbiting Earth at a high angle, or inclination, to the equator.

Over tens of million years, the Moon continued to slowly move away from Earth until it reached a second transition point, the Cassini transition, at which point the inclination of the Moon -- the angle between the Moon's orbit and Earth's equator -- dropped to about five degrees, putting the Moon more or less in its current orbit.

The new theory elegantly explains the Moon's orbit and composition based on a single, giant impact at the beginning, Stewart said. No extra intervening steps are required to nudge things along.

"One giant impact sets off the sequence of events," she said.