Astronomers Say Moons Like Ours Are Uncommon

Nov 20, 2007
Astronomers Say Moons Like Ours Are Uncommon
This artist's animation shows bodies as big as mountain ranges smashing together. Such collisions form the basis of the planet-building process. An even bigger collision between Earth and a body the size of Mars is thought to have created our moon. Image credit: NASA/JPL/Caltech

The next time you take a moonlit stroll, or admire a full, bright-white moon looming in the night sky, you might count yourself lucky. New observations from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope suggest that moons like Earth's - that formed out of tremendous collisions - are uncommon in the universe, arising at most in only 5 to 10 percent of planetary systems.

"When a moon forms from a violent collision, dust should be blasted everywhere," said Nadya Gorlova of the University of Florida, Gainesville, lead author of a new study appearing Nov. 20 in the Astrophysical Journal. "If there were lots of moons forming, we would have seen dust around lots of stars - but we didn't."

It's hard to imagine Earth without a moon. Our familiar white orb has long been the subject of art, myth and poetry. Wolves howl at it, and humans have left footprints in its soil. Life itself might have evolved from the ocean to land thanks to tides induced by the moon's gravity.

Scientists believe the moon arose about 30 to 50 million years after our sun was born, and after our rocky planets had begun to take shape. A body as big as Mars is thought to have smacked into our infant Earth, breaking off a piece of its mantle. Some of the resulting debris fell into orbit around Earth, eventually coalescing into the moon we see today. The other moons in our solar system either formed simultaneously with their planet or were captured by their planet's gravity.

Gorlova and her colleagues looked for the dusty signs of similar smash-ups around 400 stars that are all about 30 million years old - roughly the age of our sun when Earth's moon formed. They found that only 1 out of the 400 stars is immersed in the telltale dust. Taking into consideration the amount of time the dust should stick around, and the age range at which moon-forming collisions can occur, the scientists then calculated the probability of a solar system making a moon like Earth's to be at most 5 to 10 percent.

"We don't know that the collision we witnessed around the one star is definitely going to produce a moon, so moon-forming events could be much less frequent than our calculation suggests," said George Rieke of the University of Arizona, Tucson, a co-author of the study.

In addition, the observations tell astronomers that the planet-building process itself winds down by 30 million years after a star is born. Like our moon, rocky planets are built up through messy collisions that spray dust all around. Current thinking holds that this process lasts from about 10 to 50 million years after a star forms. The fact that Gorlova and her team found only 1 star out of 400 with collision-generated dust indicates that the 30-million-year-old stars in the study have, for the most part, finished making their planets.

"Astronomers have observed young stars with dust swirling around them for more than 20 years now," said Gorlova. "But those stars are usually so young that their dust could be left over from the planet-formation process. The star we have found is older, at the same age our sun was when it had finished making planets and the Earth-moon system had just formed in a collision."

For moon lovers, the news isn't all bad. For one thing, moons can form in different ways. And, even though the majority of rocky planets in the universe might not have moons like Earth's, astronomers believe there are billions of rocky planets out there. Five to 10 percent of billions is still a lot of moons.

Other authors of the paper include: Zoltan Balog, James Muzerolle, Kate Y. L. Su and Erick T. Young of the University of Arizona, and Valentin D. Ivanov of the European Southern Observatory, Chile.

Source: Jet Propulsion Laboratory, by Whitney Clavin

Explore further: Unique pair of supermassive black holes in an ordinary galaxy discovered

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Team builds world's first CubeSat microgravity laboratory

1 hour ago

(Phys.org) —A dozen astronauts have walked on the moon, and several rovers have been piloted on Mars, giving us a good understanding of these off-world environments. But when it comes to asteroids, scientists ...

The importance of plumes

Apr 18, 2014

The Hubble Space Telescope is famous for finding black holes. It can pick out thousands of galaxies in a patch of sky the size of a thumbprint. The most powerful space telescope ever built, the Hubble provided ...

LADEE mission ends with planned lunar impact

Apr 18, 2014

(Phys.org) —Ground controllers at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., have confirmed that NASA's Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) spacecraft impacted the surface ...

Red moon at night; stargazer's delight

Apr 16, 2014

Monday night's lunar eclipse proved just as delightful as expected to those able to view it. On the East Coast, cloudy skies may have gotten in the way, but at the National Science Foundation's National Optical ...

Recommended for you

A star's early chemistry shapes life-friendly atmospheres

2 hours ago

Born in a disc of gas and rubble, planets eventually come together as larger and larger pieces of dust and rock stick together. They may be hundreds of light-years away from us, but astronomers can nevertheless ...

Image: X-raying the cosmos

Apr 22, 2014

When we gaze up at the night sky, we are only seeing part of the story. Unfortunately, some of the most powerful and energetic events in the Universe are invisible to our eyes – and to even the best optical ...

Mysteries of nearby planetary system's dynamics solved

Apr 22, 2014

Mysteries of one of the most fascinating nearby planetary systems now have been solved, report authors of a scientific paper to be published by the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society in its ...

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

seanpu
3.5 / 5 (2) Nov 21, 2007
you can tell its an artists impression. the smaller rock explodes!!! hehe then the debris flies out like its moving through a gas!! nonsense images like artists impressions should never be used to describe reality on a science website.

More news stories

How many moons does Venus have?

There are dozens upon dozens of moons in the Solar System, ranging from airless worlds like Earth's Moon to those with an atmosphere (most notably, Saturn's Titan). Jupiter and Saturn have many moons each, ...

Male-biased tweeting

Today women take an active part in public life. Without a doubt, they also converse with other women. In fact, they even talk to each other about other things besides men. As banal as it sounds, this is far ...

High-calorie and low-nutrient foods in kids' TV

Fruits and vegetables are often displayed in the popular Swedish children's TV show Bolibompa, but there are also plenty of high-sugar foods. A new study from the University of Gothenburg explores how food is portrayed in ...