What followed the Giant Impact (read Lord Mayor’s Show)?

The dominance of the Lunar Highlands by feldspar-rich anorthosites, which form when feldspars that crystallise from magmas float because of their lower density, gave rise to the idea that the Moon initially formed as a totally molten mass. That this probably resulted because the early Earth collided with a Mars-sized protoplanet stems from the almost identical chemical composition of the lunar and terrestrial mantles, as worked out from the composition of younger basalts derived from both, together with the vast energy needed to support a large molten planetary body condensing from a plasma cloud orbiting the Earth. Such a giant impact is also implicated in the final stages of core formation within the Earth.

Artist's depiction of the giant impact that is...
Artist’s depiction (after William K. Hartmann) of the giant impact that is hypothesized to have formed the Moon. (credit: Wikipedia)

A core formed from molten iron alloyed with nickel would have acted as a chemical attractor for all other elements that have an affinity for metallic iron: the siderophile elements, such as gold and platinum. Yet the chemistry of post-moon formation basaltic melts derived from the Earth’s mantle contain considerably more of these elements than expected, a feature that has led geochemists to wonder whether a large proportion of the mantle arrived – or was accreted – after the giant impact.

A tool that has proved useful in geochemistry on the scale of entire planets – well, just the Earth and Moon so far – is measuring the isotopic composition of tungsten, a lithophile metal that has great affinity for silicates. One isotope is 182W that forms when a radioactive isotope of hafnium (182Hf) decays. The proportion of 182W relative to other tungsten isotopes has been shown to be about the same in Lunar Highland anorthosites as it is in the Earth’s mantle. This feature is believed to reflect Moon formation and its solidification after the parent 182Hf had all decayed away: the decay has a half-life of about 9 Ma and after 60 Ma since the formation of the Solar System (and a nearby supernova that both triggered it and flung unstable isotopes such as 182Hf into what became the Solar nebula) vanishingly small amounts would remain.

Oddly, two papers on tungsten and Earth-Moon evolution, having much the same aims, using similar, newly refined methods and with similar results appeared in the same recent issue of Nature (Touboul, M. et al. 2015. Tungsten isotopic evidence for disproportional late accretion to the Earth and Moon. Nature, v. 520, p. 530-533. Kruijer, T.S. et al. 2015. Lunar tungsten isotopic evidence for the late veneer. Nature, v. 520, p. 534-537). The two of them present analyses of glasses produced by large impacts into the lunar surface and probably the mantle, which flung them all over the place, maintaining the commonality of the ventures that might be explained by there being a limited number of suitable Apollo samples. Both report an excess of 182W in the lunar materials: indeed, almost the same excess given the methodological precisions. And, both conclude that Moon and Earth were identical just after formation, with a disproportional degree of later accretion of Solar nebula material to the Earth and Moon.

So, there we have it: it does look as if Earth continued to grow after it was whacked, and there is confirmation. Both papers conclude, perhaps predictably, that the early Solar System was a violent place about which there is much yet to be learned…

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