Moon geology could solve three mysteries of early Earth

Dec 08, 2008 By Lisa Zyga feature
Photo of the Earth rising over the moon’s horizon, taken from the Apollo 8 mission. Image credit: NASA.

( -- Not much is known about the Earth before 4 billion years ago, the earliest period in the planet’s 4.5-billion-year history. Because Earth has lost almost all geological records of this era from its surface, it’s often considered the planet’s dark ages.

This lack of data on the early Earth is not merely trivial. Without knowing the conditions of early Earth, researchers haven’t been able to answer some fundamental questions of earth science: when the Earth’s magnetic field originated, how the Earth’s relationship with the moon changes over time, and when oxygen first appeared in the atmosphere (and, incidentally, when life originated on Earth).

Recently, a team of researchers consisting of Minoru Ozima and Yayoi N. Miura from the University of Tokyo; Qing-Zhu Yin from the University of California, Davis; and Frank Podosek from Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, have proposed a series of experiments that could answer these three mysteries, independent of other observations that sometimes give conflicting results. They hope that their proposal might serve as a useful guide for future investigation.

“I speculate that heavy bombardment by meteorite showers at around 4 billion years ago – which is well-recorded on the lunar surface as numerous craters and is known as lunar cataclysm – may also have almost totally erased surface records on the Earth [before 4 billion years ago],” Ozima told

To make up for the lack of early geological evidence on Earth, Ozima and his coauthors suggest that examining the lunar soil for light elements such as helium, nitrogen, oxygen, neon, and argon could shed light on these questions. Previous research has shown that light elements from Earth‘s early atmosphere could be transported into space by the Solar wind and Earth’s wind, and some of these elements should reach the Moon’s near surface. However, such element transportation would be favorable only under certain conditions: namely, if the Earth did not have a permanent geomagnetic field, and if the distance between the Earth and Moon was much shorter than the present distance.

These requirements could be met by the Earth in its very early days. Scientists know that the Earth’s geomagnetic field is caused by the motion of the planet’s liquid iron core (which formed with the Earth around 4.5 billion years ago). However, the sustained geomagnetic field might also require the crystallization of a solid inner core, possibly placing the field’s origins as recently as 3.5 billion years ago, when geologists have evidence of its existence. Other studies have shown that, due to the slow loss of tidal energy, the Moon is drifting further and further from the Earth. Today, scientists estimate that the Moon is twice as far away as it was 4 billion years ago.

Therefore, carefully analyzing the amount and content of light terrestrial elements on the Moon could impose a constraint on the onset time of the Earth’s geomagnetic field. An analysis could reveal information regarding the variation of the Earth-Moon system, such as confirming the increasing day length (estimated at 0.002 seconds per day per century) in order to conserve angular momentum as the Moon drifts farther out. Since the far side of the moon has always faced away from us shortly after the moon’s formation, the research team predicts that almost no terrestrial elements should be observed in lunar soils on the far side.

Ionized oxygen could also escape from the Earth even with the Earth’s geomagnetic field, although the amount would differ. The researchers explained that if oxygen originating from Earth’s atmosphere were identified in the top 50 nanometers of suitable mineral grains collected on the Moon’s surface, augmented by the age of the mineral grains determined by radiometric dating techniques, it could provide unambiguous proof for the rise of oxygen in the Earth’s atmosphere in an early period. Because oxygen in the Earth’s atmosphere is generally attributed to photosynthesis, the first appearance of oxygen is often regarded as synonymous with the origin of life on Earth. On this issue, sulfur isotopic records have shown conflicting results, ranging from 2.5 billion years ago to much earlier for oxygen’s appearance.

Although such experiments would require extremely precise isotopic measurements of tiny concentrations in lunar soils, the researchers said that such investigations are feasible today with minor technical improvements. Ozima said that the most challenging part of carrying out the proposed experiments is organizing a large-scale international laboratory.

“Firstly, we need to collect hundreds of thousands of lunar ilmenite grains from lunar soils, not only from the near side, but also from the far side,” he said. “And then we need tens of thousands of isotopic analyses of high precision of lunar ilmenite grains. Even a well-equipped and stuffed contemporary laboratory would be capable of a few hundred analyses at most.”

The proposed experiments show that, despite the great distance between the Earth and the Moon, our natural satellite could tell us more about our planet than we can find here. As Ozima added, answering these questions on the Earth’s earliest days could help scientists understand the origin of the solar system – “the most fundamental issue not only in Earth and Planetary Science, but also in the intellectual challenge of human beings,” he said.

More information: Ozima, Minoru; Yin, Qing-Zhu; Podosek, Frank A.; and Miura, Yayoi N. “Toward understanding early Earth evolution: Prescription for approach from terrestrial noble gas and light element records in lunar soils.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, November 18, 2008, vol. 105, no. 46, 17654-17658.

Copyright 2008
All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed in whole or part without the express written permission of

Explore further: Evolving plumbing system beneath Greenland slows ice sheet as summer progresses

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Image: Looking for comets in a sea of stars

Sep 26, 2014

On a July night this summer, a 5,200-pound balloon gondola hangs from a crane and moves toward the open doors of a building at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, Md. The telescopes ...

Turning the moon into a cosmic ray detector

Sep 26, 2014

Scientists from the University of Southampton are to turn the Moon into a giant particle detector to help understand the origin of Ultra-High-Energy (UHE) cosmic rays - the most energetic particles in the ...

Climate: Now to turn summit prose into action

Sep 25, 2014

Having renewed their commitment to saving Earth's climate, governments face daunting challenges in the coming months to draft a global pact and set targets for slashing carbon emissions, analysts said Wednesday.

Could there really be such a thing as volcano season?

Sep 25, 2014

The Earth seems to have been smoking a lot recently. Volcanoes are currently erupting in Iceland, Hawaii, Indonesia and Mexico. Others, in the Philippines and Papua New Guinea, erupted recently but seem to ...

Image: A splash of color across the supermoon

Sep 25, 2014

A software engineer from Florida recently captured an image of the day-old supermoon in September that clearly conveys color variations across its surface. Such variations are often imperceptible, but the ...

Water in the solar system predates the Sun

Sep 25, 2014

Water was crucial to the rise of life on Earth and is also important to evaluating the possibility of life on other planets. Identifying the original source of Earth's water is key to understanding how life-fostering ...

Recommended for you

Sculpting tropical peaks

7 hours ago

Tropical mountain ranges erode quickly, as heavy year-round rains feed raging rivers and trigger huge, fast-moving landslides. Rapid erosion produces rugged terrain, with steep rivers running through deep ...

Volcano expert comments on Japan eruption

8 hours ago

Loÿc Vanderkluysen, PhD, who recently joined Drexel as an assistant professor in Department of Biodiversity, Earth and Environmental Science in the College of Arts and Sciences, returned Friday from fieldwork ...

NASA's HS3 looks Hurricane Edouard in the eye

21 hours ago

NASA and NOAA scientists participating in NASA's Hurricane and Severe Storms Sentinel (HS3) mission used their expert skills, combined with a bit of serendipity on Sept. 17, 2014, to guide the remotely piloted ...

User comments : 8

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

3.3 / 5 (10) Dec 08, 2008
Assuming the Earth and moon are related....
2.7 / 5 (6) Dec 09, 2008
Uhh...What they're suggesting is that they're related by location, not formation.
3.8 / 5 (4) Dec 09, 2008
No matter how you look at it, at this moment (at for the last couple of years) the two are related.
There are several ideas about how the moon originated and the most common idea is that the two have collided and that the moon was trapped afterwards. It does mean however, that a lot of material from the early earth has been transferred from earth to the moon. Hopefully, it can still be found and give answers to some of our questions.
The main question remains if this idea is correct is when this had happened. If it was in an very early state, we can go back a long time, maybe even to the origin of the earth.
3.3 / 5 (7) Dec 09, 2008
Photosynthesis occurs in oceans also, and is not indicative of first life. Methanogens or deep sea bacteria are not photosynthetic.
4.5 / 5 (4) Dec 09, 2008
It is most propable that the first signs of life didnt use photosynthesis at all but used (like other deep-sea life) chemosynthesis or thermosynthesis
5 / 5 (3) Dec 09, 2008
"Because oxygen in the Earth%u2019s atmosphere is generally attributed to photosynthesis, the first appearance of oxygen is often regarded as synonymous with the origin of life on Earth."

Really? I understand that the the Earth originally had life which existed in a reducing atmosphere. Photosynthesis came later (and might have been the cause of a mass extinction).
1 / 5 (1) Dec 11, 2008
"How the Moon arose has long stumped scientists. Now Dutch geophysicists argue that it was created not by a massive collision 4.5 billion years ago, but by a runaway nuclear reaction deep inside the young Earth."


Currently (12:35 PM 12/11/08) Slashdotted.
not rated yet Dec 27, 2008
I doubt that.