Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

New model explains the moon's weird orbit

01.11.2016

Simulations suggest a dramatic history for the Earth-moon duo

The moon, Earth's closest neighbor, is among the strangest planetary bodies in the solar system. Its orbit lies unusually far away from Earth, with a surprisingly large orbital tilt. Planetary scientists have struggled to piece together a scenario that accounts for these and other related characteristics of the Earth-moon system.


In the "giant impact" model of the moon's formation, the young moon began its orbit within Earth's equatorial plane. In the standard variant of this model (top panel), Earth's tilt began near today's value of 23.5 degrees. The moon would have moved outward smoothly along a path that slowly changed from the equatorial plane to the "ecliptic" plane, defined by Earth's orbit around the sun. If, however, Earth had a much larger tilt after the impact (~75 degrees, lower panel) then the transition between the equatorial and ecliptic planes would have been abrupt, resulting in large oscillations about the ecliptic. The second picture is consistent with the moon's current 5-degree orbital tilt away from the ecliptic.

Credit: Douglas Hamilton

A new research paper, based on numerical models of the moon's explosive formation and the evolution of the Earth-moon system, comes closer to tying up all the loose ends than any other previous explanation. The work, published in the October 31, 2016 Advance Online edition of the journal Nature, suggests that the impact that formed the moon also caused calamitous changes to Earth's rotation and the tilt of its spin axis.

The research suggests that the impact sent the Earth spinning much faster, and at a much steeper tilt, than it does today. In the several billion years since that impact, complex interactions between the Earth, moon and sun have smoothed out many of these changes, resulting in the Earth-moon system that we see today. In this scenario, the remaining anomalies in the moon's orbit are relics of the Earth-moon system's explosive past.

"Evidence suggests a giant impact blasted off a huge amount of material that formed the moon," said Douglas Hamilton, professor of astronomy at the University of Maryland and a co-author of the Nature paper. "This material would have formed a ring of debris first, then the ring would have aggregated to form the moon. But this scenario does not quite work if the Earth's spin axis was tilted at the 23.5 degree angle we see today."

Collisional physics calls for this ring of debris--and thus the moon's orbit immediately after formation--to lie in Earth's equatorial plane. As tidal interactions between the Earth and the moon drove the moon further away from Earth, the moon should have shifted from Earth's equatorial plane to the "ecliptic" plane, which corresponds to the Earth's orbit around the sun.

But today, instead of being in line with the ecliptic plane, the moon's orbit is tilted five degrees away from it.

"This large tilt is very unusual. Until now, there hasn't been a good explanation," Hamilton said. " But we can understand it if the Earth had a more dramatic early history than we previously suspected."

Hamilton, with lead author Matija Cuk of the SETI institute and their colleagues Simon Lock of Harvard University and Sarah Stewart of the University of California, Davis, tried many different scenarios. But the most successful ones involved a moon-forming impact that sent the Earth spinning extremely fast--as much as twice the rate predicted by other models. The impact also knocked the Earth's tilt way off, to somewhere between 60 and 80 degrees.

"We already suspected that the Earth must have spun especially fast after the impact" Cuk said. "An early high tilt for Earth enables our planet to lose that excess spin more readily."

The model also suggests that the newly-formed moon started off very close to Earth, but then drifted away--to nearly 15 times its initial distance. As it did so, the sun began to exert a more powerful influence over the moon's orbit.

According to the researchers, both factors--a highly tilted, fast spinning Earth and an outwardly-migrating moon--contributed to establishing the moon's current weird orbit. The newborn moon's orbit most likely tracked the Earth's equator, tilted at a steep 60-80 degree angle that matched Earth's tilt.

A key finding of the new research is that, if the Earth was indeed tilted by more than 60 degrees after the moon formed, the moon could not transition smoothly from Earth's equatorial plane to the ecliptic plane. Instead, the transition was abrupt and left the moon with a large tilt relative to the ecliptic-- much larger than is observed today.

"As the moon moved outward, the Earth's steep tilt made for a more chaotic transition as the sun became a bigger influence," Cuk said. "Subsequently, and over billions of years, the moon's tilt slowly decayed down to the five degrees we see today. So today's five degree tilt is a relic and a signature of a much steeper tilt in the past."

Hamilton acknowledges that the model doesn't answer all the remaining questions about the moon's orbit. But the model's strength, he says, is that it offers a framework for answering new questions in the future.

"There are many potential paths from the moon's formation to the Earth-moon system we see today. We've identified a few of them, but there are sure to be other possibilities," Hamilton said. "What we have now is a model that is more probable and works more cleanly than previous attempts. We think this is a significant improvement that gets us closer to what actually happened."

###

The research paper, "Tidal Evolution of the Moon from a High-Obliquity High-Angular-Momentum Earth," Matija Cuk, Douglas Hamilton, Simon Lock, and Sarah Stewart, appears in the October 31, 2016 Advance Online edition of the journal Nature.

This work was supported by NASA (Award No. NNX15AH65G). The content of this article does not necessarily reflect the views of this organization.

Media Relations Contact: Matthew Wright, 301-405-9267, mewright@umd.edu

University of Maryland
College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences
2300 Symons Hall
College Park, MD 20742
http://www.cmns.umd.edu
@UMDscience

About the College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences

The College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences at the University of Maryland educates more than 7,000 future scientific leaders in its undergraduate and graduate programs each year. The college's 10 departments and more than a dozen interdisciplinary research centers foster scientific discovery with annual sponsored research funding exceeding $150 million.

Media Contact

Matthew Wright
mewright@umd.edu
301-405-9267

 @UMDRightNow

http://www.umdrightnow.umd.edu/ 

Matthew Wright | EurekAlert!

Further reports about: Earth Earth spinning Earth-Moon system ecliptic plane

More articles from Physics and Astronomy:

nachricht Moon's crust underwent resurfacing after forming from magma ocean
22.11.2017 | University of Texas at Austin

nachricht NASA's James Webb Space Telescope completes final cryogenic testing
21.11.2017 | NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

All articles from Physics and Astronomy >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Nanoparticles help with malaria diagnosis – new rapid test in development

The WHO reports an estimated 429,000 malaria deaths each year. The disease mostly affects tropical and subtropical regions and in particular the African continent. The Fraunhofer Institute for Silicate Research ISC teamed up with the Fraunhofer Institute for Molecular Biology and Applied Ecology IME and the Institute of Tropical Medicine at the University of Tübingen for a new test method to detect malaria parasites in blood. The idea of the research project “NanoFRET” is to develop a highly sensitive and reliable rapid diagnostic test so that patient treatment can begin as early as possible.

Malaria is caused by parasites transmitted by mosquito bite. The most dangerous form of malaria is malaria tropica. Left untreated, it is fatal in most cases....

Im Focus: A “cosmic snake” reveals the structure of remote galaxies

The formation of stars in distant galaxies is still largely unexplored. For the first time, astron-omers at the University of Geneva have now been able to closely observe a star system six billion light-years away. In doing so, they are confirming earlier simulations made by the University of Zurich. One special effect is made possible by the multiple reflections of images that run through the cosmos like a snake.

Today, astronomers have a pretty accurate idea of how stars were formed in the recent cosmic past. But do these laws also apply to older galaxies? For around a...

Im Focus: Visual intelligence is not the same as IQ

Just because someone is smart and well-motivated doesn't mean he or she can learn the visual skills needed to excel at tasks like matching fingerprints, interpreting medical X-rays, keeping track of aircraft on radar displays or forensic face matching.

That is the implication of a new study which shows for the first time that there is a broad range of differences in people's visual ability and that these...

Im Focus: Novel Nano-CT device creates high-resolution 3D-X-rays of tiny velvet worm legs

Computer Tomography (CT) is a standard procedure in hospitals, but so far, the technology has not been suitable for imaging extremely small objects. In PNAS, a team from the Technical University of Munich (TUM) describes a Nano-CT device that creates three-dimensional x-ray images at resolutions up to 100 nanometers. The first test application: Together with colleagues from the University of Kassel and Helmholtz-Zentrum Geesthacht the researchers analyzed the locomotory system of a velvet worm.

During a CT analysis, the object under investigation is x-rayed and a detector measures the respective amount of radiation absorbed from various angles....

Im Focus: Researchers Develop Data Bus for Quantum Computer

The quantum world is fragile; error correction codes are needed to protect the information stored in a quantum object from the deteriorating effects of noise. Quantum physicists in Innsbruck have developed a protocol to pass quantum information between differently encoded building blocks of a future quantum computer, such as processors and memories. Scientists may use this protocol in the future to build a data bus for quantum computers. The researchers have published their work in the journal Nature Communications.

Future quantum computers will be able to solve problems where conventional computers fail today. We are still far away from any large-scale implementation,...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

Ecology Across Borders: International conference brings together 1,500 ecologists

15.11.2017 | Event News

Road into laboratory: Users discuss biaxial fatigue-testing for car and truck wheel

15.11.2017 | Event News

#Berlin5GWeek: The right network for Industry 4.0

30.10.2017 | Event News

 
Latest News

UCLA engineers use deep learning to reconstruct holograms and improve optical microscopy

22.11.2017 | Medical Engineering

Watching atoms move in hybrid perovskite crystals reveals clues to improving solar cells

22.11.2017 | Materials Sciences

New study points the way to therapy for rare cancer that targets the young

22.11.2017 | Health and Medicine

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>