Planetary Differentiation and the Development of the Earth-Moon System

After their initial formation, the planetesimals and protoplanets of the Solar System were characterized by a relatively homogeneous composition. However, they soon started to heat up and differentiate. This heat was generated mainly from two sources: further collisions with other celestial objects and the decay of radioactive elements. In planetesimals and protoplanets whose temperatures rose sufficiently to cause melting, denser metallic materials sank towards the center, while lighter rocky materials remained behind at the surface. During this process of differentiation, these objects developed a layered structure consisting of a core, mantle and crust, after which they eventually cooled and became mostly solidified. Under the effects of gravity, the irregular shapes of the protoplanets were molded into spheres.

Even after differentiation had taken place, the young planets were continuously bombarded by meteorites and as a result, their surfaces became scarred with large amounts of impact craters. Approximately 4.53 billion years ago, an especially intense collision occurred between the Earth and a small planet known as Theia. This collision caused Theia and a large part of the Earth to disintegrate, melt and be blasted into space, after which a debris ring formed around the Earth. The Moon was ultimately formed from the materials in this ring of debris. Scientists know this because Moon rocks have an age of roughly 4.53 billion years and because they are very similar in composition to rocks from Earth’s mantle.

Book reference: Marshak, S. (2007). Earth: Portrait of a Planet: Third International Student Edition. WW Norton & Company.

Image: Earth as seen from the surface of the Moon by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. Credit: NASA/Goddard/Arizona State University.

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