The Earth, over its 4.5 billion year history, has been pummeled by asteroids.
Eroded by wind and rain.
Covered over with flowing lava.
Wrinkled and gouged by shifts in its crust.
Most traces of its distant past have long since been destroyed.
But there is a place where clues to the early history of our planet are still largely intact.
Scientists have been reconstructing its history by scouring its surface, mapping its mountains
and craters, and probing its interior regions.
What are they learning about our own planet's beginnings, by going back in time, to the
mysterious Birth of the Moon.
The space age made possible rockets with enough power to blast humans and their life support
systems into orbit.
More than three hundred manned space flights have shown that humans can live and explore
beyond our Earth.
None of these missions have done more to shape our connection to the cosmos, and define who
were are, than the fabled flights of Apollo. But not for reasons you might think.
We sent astronauts to the moon as a symbol of confidence in the face of the great cold
war struggle. Many hoped that would lead to further journeys to Mars, and to an age of
living in space.
Those goals proved too grand in the face of all the preoccupations, turbulence, and change
that would crash onto our own planetary shores.
Landing on the moon was a giant leap for mankind. But it's what the astronauts picked up from
the lunar surface that may turn out to be Apollo's greatest legacy.
When the astronauts of Apollo stepped out of their landing craft, they entered a world
draped in fine sticky dust, strewn with rocks, and pocked with craters.
They walked and rambled about, picking up rocks - 382 kilograms worth -- that they packed
for the return flight.
Back in earth-bound labs, scientists went to work probing the rocks for clues to one
of the most vexing questions in all of science.
Where did the moon come from?
The answer promised to shed light on an even grander question. Where did Earth come from?
And how did it evolve into the planet we know today?
The apollo rocks have brought us closer to the answer, but basic mysteries still remain.
The moon orbits Earth at an average distance of 384,400 kilometers. It's relatively small,
with less than one percent the surface area, two percent the volume, and one percent the
mass of Earth.
With no atmosphere, temperatures range, in Celsius, from -233 degrees at night to 123
degrees during the day.
As the brightest object in the night sky, the moon has guided people for millennia...
by defining the rhythms of life and animating our myths.
The nature of the moon began to come into focus four centuries ago.
Galileo Galilei had heard of an instrument built by Dutch opticians capable of "seeing
faraway things as though nearby."
Galileo, in many ways the first modern scientist, saw this new instrument as a tool to help
settle a long standing question.
What was the nature of the heavens, and how did the world of men fit within it?
To some philosophers, the moon was a perfect, crystalline sphere of divine substance, free
of Earth's imperfections.
Galileo, with his telescope, saw a more familiar reality.
He noted mountains and valleys on the moon, features like those of Earth.
Flash forward to the modern age of lunar studies. 1959 saw the first in a fleet of probes launched
by the Soviet Union and the United States to shoot closeup pictures, take readings,
and crash onto its surface.
We learned then just how different the moon is from Earth, with its cratered and dessicated
landscapes, and lack of a magnetic field. That intensified a debate about the moon's
origin that went back centuries.
The so-called fission theory, championed by George Howard Darwin, son of Charles Darwin,
held that the moon was once part of the Earth, cast off by the rapid spin of its young parent.
For proof, look no farther than the Pacific Ocean, a giant hole in the Earth's surface.
Then there's the capture theory, which holds that the moon was a wayward object that floated
through our solar system and was pulled into orbit by Earth's gravity.
A third idea came from the American astronomer Thomas Jefferson Jackson See, also known for
his attacks on Einstein's theories and for charges of plagerism that were leveled at
He suggested that the Moon formed near Earth and gradually fell under its gravitational
spell. In that case, the moon should be a mini-Earth, which we now know it's not.
The astronauts of Apollo lifted off on a series of missions to get a close up look at the
moon and perhaps settle the debate.
Because there's no atmosphere there, the astronauts entered landscapes that are nearly frozen
in time. They could scour the lunar surface for evidence of events going back almost to
the time of its birth.
Indeed, eons of impacts had opened up the Moon's interior, leaving a wealth of information
strewn about their landing sites.
Scientists had already noticed that some large old craters were surrounded by concentric
rings. You can see one of the most pronounced examples in this image of the Mare Orientale,
captured recently by NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, or LRO. The colors show differences
The old view was that the impact had melted the rock below. A newer view held that the
impactor had actually splashed down on a molten surface.
That gave rise to the radical notion that, early in its history, the moon's surface was
covered in a vast ocean of magma.
When the astronauts arrived, they found relatively light rocks known as anorthosites. Their presence
suggested that heavier material had sunk toward the moon's interior, forcing lighter material
to the surface.
The rocks they brought back were found to be strikingly similar to those on Earth, in
part because they share forms of oxygen, called isotopes, that scientists regard as "blood
types" for solar system bodies.
Then there was this. The moon appeared to be completely, utterly, dry, with no evidence
that water was ever present on its surface.
Not long after the last Apollo mission went into the history books, this initial evidence
coalesced into a radical new idea first presented in 1974 by the scientist and artist, William
His theory of the moon's formation is played out in this contemporary scenario.
Sharing an orbit with Earth was a Mars-sized body called Theia, named for a Titan in Greek
myth who gave birth to the moon goddess, Selene.
Its orbit became unstable and it headed in Earth's direction.
Theia hit at an oblique angle, causing the Earth to spin faster and debris from both
Theia and the Earth to fly into orbit.
When the dust settled, the debris began to coalesced in Earth orbit, forming the Moon.
By then, volatile compounds like water had evaporated.
The moon, then, comes primarily from the mantles of the Earth and Theia. That's why overall
the moon is lighter, or less dense, than Earth.
It has a core of solid iron like Earth, but this core is relatively small compared to
From this violent beginning, the moon gradually coole, and the magma that lined its surface
hardened into a crust. Yet it was still subject to intense bombardment in the chaotic environment
of the early solar system.
You can see what a battering the moon has taken in this global elevation map compiled
by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. Its surface has been hammered by large impacts at every
stage in its history.
The Apollo astronauts encountered a secondary effect of all the impacts, rocks formed in
the crucible of widespread volcanism.
On Earth, volcanic eruptions are often powered by water, heated and pressurized by friction
from the movement of immense tectonic plates. Neither factor exists on the Moon.
Instead, lunar volcanoes are tied to impacts forceful enough to melt the surface and release
material from the hot interior. In the lower gravity of the Moon, volcanic eruptions would
have splattered high above the landscape.
Molten rock then flowed out in thin smooth layers that reached far from its source.
That's how the mare regions that cover about one-sixth of the entire lunar surface were
formed. These immense volcanic basins are thought to date back to period of large and
violent impacts from three to four billion years ago.
The materials brought up by these impacts are made up of heavier compounds that would
have initially sunk into the magma ocean.
Scientists have also detected volcanic residues in recent impacts that have been imaged by
This is the Aristarchus Plateau with a mysterious channel cut by flowing lava and punctuated
by two immense craters. One was created by an impact just 450 million years ago.
Along its walls are blocks of rock from the lunar crust that fragmented in the impact.
Scientists detected volcanic glass-like deposits that are the legacy of ancient eruptions.
Then there's the strange landscape of the Tycho crater, from an impact about 100 million
years ago. Its central peak, rising two kilometers above the crater floor, may be material blasted
out by the impact.
The same is true for a 120-meter wide boulder that sits on the summit. Around it, and on
it, scientists see evidence of rock that was melted in the heat of the impact itself.
Since its birth, the moon has exerted a constant and powerful influence on Earth. Gravitational
drag from the moon slows Earth's rotation by 2.3 milliseconds per century... while causing
the moon to drift away at a rate of 3.8 centimeters per year.
The moon's tidal pull acts to stabilize Earth's rotation about its axis, and the tides help
promote the formation of ocean currents that shape our climate.
To think that the root of this intimate relationship between Earth and the moon stems from a violent
collision so long ago.
However, the giant impact theory is not universally accepted.
For one thing, there's the issue of water.
The dryness of the moon is consistent with the giant impact theory, which predicts that
water and other volatile compounds would have evaporated out of the lunar debris cloud.
But the moon may not be so dry after all.
In 1998, the unmanned Lunar Prospector began an ambitious mission to map the lunar surface
with an instrument called a gamma-ray spectrometer.
The data showed that hydrogen is spread widely across the poles of the moon. If it's from
ice, millions of tons of water could well be embedded in the soil there.
It turns out there are places where water can exist on the moon, where the sun never
shines. Polar craters, forever in shadow, could shelter significant quantities of ice
against solar radiation.
Prospecting for ice, the LCross probe arrived at the moon in 2009 aboard the Lunar Reconnaissance
Orbiter, on a collision course with the 97 kilometer wide Cabeus Crater at the south
Seconds after it slammed into the crater, a trailing probe detected a tenuous cloud
rising up from the crater.
In the cloud was a mix of carbon monoxide, ammonia, methane, and more. 5.6% of the crater
floor is water ice, a higher concentration than some areas on Earth.
The presence of water is good news for explorers who dream of one day spending quality time
on the moon. But how did it get there?
It might have been delivered by comets striking the moon over the eons.
There's another explanation, one that emerged from rocks gathered by the Apollo astronauts.
The samples are graced with tiny glassy globules, minerals melted in the crucible of lunar volcanism.
Analysing these Apollo rocks with new techniques, several teams of scientists have found a compound
called hydroxyl. It's H2O, with only one H, and could be turned into water, say, for a
Much of what the moon had was likely lost to space from impacts. Tiny residues might
remain in polar craters. The rest, still locked up inside the moon, might be enough to cover
its surface in a layer of water one meter deep.
Does the presence of water inside the moon send us back to square one on its formation?
It might not, if it had been carried in by comets in the moon's early days.
One new study suggests that the giant impact scenario is more complex than we thought.
It holds that another, much smaller body formed alongside the moon and eventually merged with
The impact literally rearranged the moon's interior, pushing molten magma onto the near
side, while adding an extra layer of crust to the far side.
That explains the lopsided topography of the moon, the dark lava basins on the near side,
and the highlands of the far side.
Human geologists with a network of seismographs could confirm this idea. The next best thing
is a mission called Grail, a pair of spacecraft orbiting the moon in unison.
Such a mission has already performed a kind of planetary CAT-scan of Earth. By measuring
subtle changes in the distance between the craft, scientists discerned variations in
The data resulted in a map of ground water all around the planet.
Flying around the moon, the Grail pair could provide new details about the size and composition
of the Moon's core, adding support for the giant impact theory, or sending science in
a whole new direction.
The intimate connection between the Earth and the moon appears to trace back to their
If that's true, then the formation of this desolate world can tell us about our own...
A blue green world with a companion reflective enough to light up the night.