Thursday, July 17, 2008

Astronomers Amazed as Moon Slowly Releases Secrets

As Pound360 mentioned previously, researchers continue to learn from the 842 pounds of lunar rocks retrieved over the course of the Apollo missions that ended 40 years ago. Recently, the NY Times ran a feature on what we've learned and why we're still learning stuff today (the main reason is that research technologies and methods keep advancing).

Among the most important findings from Moon rocks:

  • Meteors, not volcanoes, are primarily responsible for shaping the surface of the Moon.
  • An asteroid wiped out the dinosaurs. How can the Moon tell us that? "Terrestrial mineral and crystal deposits 65 million years old were similar to those found routinely in lunar ejecta."
  • The Moon is just about as old as the earth, solar system. One rock, what scientists refer to as the "genesis" rock, is almost 4.5 billion years old. The is about 4.54 billion years old. The solar system formed just 4.6 billion years ago. It must have been an amazing 200 million years.
  • Using what we know about the Moon's surface, we predict the age of surfaces on other Moons, planets in the solar system.
In addition to these accepted findings is a more controversial one that may shed light on how life evolved on . According to the Times, "some researchers have suggested" lunar impacts tapered off soon after the Moon formed (about 4.3 billion years ago), only to "resume with a vengeance" 400 million years later. The "cataclysm" would have affected Moon and Earth at a time "when life was just beginning."

Pound360 has some questions. Did the "cataclysm" spark life on this planet? Perhaps in the onslaught of asteroids, comets or whatever, one (or a few) of them carried genetic material (
not an all together crazy idea) or bacteria (another crazy but not so ridiculous idea) at a time when the Earth was first receptive to life (after the planet cooled and oceans formed).

Also, where did the material that made up this cataclysmic shower of material come from? Was there another planet out there in the same space as Mars, and did the two of them collide? There is evidence that Mars was struck by the "
largest impact in the solar system." Perhaps the two planets crashed, Mars survived, and the remnants of the other planet either showered the inner solar system with debris or continue to drift in the space between Mars and Jupiter we call the Asteroid Belt.

As this post developed, Pound360 dug into the origins of the Asteroid Belt and learned at Wikipedia that astronomers in the early nineteenth century postulated the Belt was formed by a shattered planet. (Pound360 figured that was about right, that we're about 200 years behind the science community.) Alas, there are two problems. One, material in the asteroid belt varies too widely in chemical composition to have come from a single planet. Two, the combined mass of the entire asteroid belt is "a small fraction of the mass of the Earth's Moon."

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I started pound360 to channel my obsession with vitamins, running and the five senses. Eventually, I got bored focusing on all that stuff, so I came back from a one month hiatus in May of 2007 (one year after launching Pound360) and broadened my mumblings here to include all science.