Origin of the Moon - A New Theory

For centuries, scientists have struggled to try to understand how our Moon came into being. The theory that has become most popular in recent decades can be shown to be clearly impossible!

During the Twentieth Century, a number of theories had been presented by various scientists as being the one definitive explanation for the source of our Moon. One after another, all but one has been dismissed as being scientifically unlikely.

The theories can be generally placed in one of several categories:

The first of these had been quite popular up until around 1970 when we brought back samples of Moon rocks from the Apollo missions. Apparent major differences in types and quantities of materials caused scientists to feel that the Earth and Moon are too different to have been created together out of the same initial material.

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The fourth, of slowly accumulating space dust into a ring, which would then gravitationally collect itself into becoming the Moon, has an assortment of scientific difficulties. There is no actual evidence that any of the several necessary processes could or would actually occur. There is no mathematical support for any method of such a ring forming in such a way or for such a ring to then collect to become a solid object. Indeed, the generally accepted thoughts regarding the rings of Saturn are just the reverse! It is thought that at least one more moon used to exist in orbit around Saturn but that it approached Saturn within a specific (theoretical) distance called the Roche limit. Mathematical analysis suggests that the differential gravitational pull of Saturn on different parts of such a moon would have physically torn it apart (as a result of the inverse square law of gravitational attraction). So, it is thought that the rings of Saturn formed FROM a previously existing moon and not the other way around.

The remaining three categories of theories have significant differences, but they share some commonalties as well. EACH requires the pre-condition of an extremely massive body traveling in an extremely unlikely orbit within the Solar System. Each also then seems to disregard the consequent change of orbit of the Earth around the Sun.

Empirical observation shows that virtually all of the objects in the Solar System that are much larger than a mile in diameter have surprisingly similar orbital characteristics. Virtually all revolve in the same direction around the Sun. Virtually all have orbits that are within just a few degrees of the same plane, the Ecliptic. Virtually all of these orbits are very close to circular, with orbits of significant ellipticity being quite rare.

Of course, we do not actually know the conditions of the early Solar System. It seems almost certain that, however the Solar System was initially formed, nearly everything would have revolved in the same direction. Most theories of the formation of the Solar System also include suppositions where the raw materials that somehow formed the planets, asteroids and the rest all revolved in a very flattened disk of material. If these suppositions are correct, then the later resultant solid planets and planetesimals that formed would have all also orbited in orbits in approximately the same plane and in nearly circular orbits.

This implies that the likelihood of a planet-sized object having such an extremely elliptical orbit (in that same plane) had to have been infinitesimally small! Even if that object was one-tenth as massive as our Moon itself, such an orbit of high ellipticity is extremely unlikely.

This circumstance would only allow one other possibility of such a large object having such an elliptic orbit. It must have started with a basically circular orbit and then (somehow) had a very close encounter with some (unknown) other massive planet-sized object, which would have gravitationally changed its orbit into a very elliptic orbit.

This phenomenon is known to occur for much smaller objects in the Solar System, as when asteroids or comets pass extremely close to the planet Jupiter. The two interact, but since Jupiter's mass is generally many billions of times that of the other object, its orbit is only minimally affected. At the same time, the orbit of the far less massive comet or asteroid is sometimes tremendously changed.

Trying to imply that Jupiter caused a rather spectacular change in the orbit of a planet-sized object is problematical. First, for such a planet to have gotten so close to Jupiter to have had its orbit so violently changed, that planet must have had an extremely elliptical orbit to start with, or it must have started out as a moon of Jupiter. There are many kinematic and dynamic problems with such a speculation. Second, the direction of the resultant force on that planet would almost certainly have included significant contributions to shift the new orbit out of the Ecliptic plane (unless the planet/moon had approached Jupiter is EXACTLY the Ecliptic plane, which is unbelievably unlikely).

This second circumstance would make it extremely unlikely that the now wandering planet would often make near approaches to ANY of the planets we know, which all follow orbits that stay very near the Ecliptic plane. This seems to deny the likelihood that the necessary wandering planet/moon would have gotten its extremely elliptic orbit as a result of Jupiter's gravitational effect. The other known planets are far less massive than Jupiter, and the pre-condition of an elliptic orbit and the likely consequence of a non-Ecliptic orbit would still apply. This means that it was highly unlikely that such an extreme orbit could have occurred as a result of gravitational effects within the Solar System.

What about from an intruder? Could some massive (unknown) object passing through the Solar System in the distant past have disrupted a planet's orbit in such a way? Almost certainly, no. Such an object certainly might have passed through the Solar System in virtually any direction. As described above, IF it happened to have passed extremely close to one of the planets, this would have been a remarkably rare situation, because the Solar System is so empty! Simple mathematical and statistical analysis shows that millions of such objects could have passed through the Solar System without any of them ever passing so close to any of the planets to severely change the planet's orbit. And, if billions or trillions of such objects passed through the Solar System (as if the Solar System passed through a major debris field in space), more than one planet could certainly have been affected. This would have altered the situation from the generally planar, generally circular orbits we observe today.

In addition, such a massive intruder would have almost certainly had the effect of severely changing the orbital plane of the planet involved. As described above regarding Jupiter, a planet with such a modified orbit would seldom pass through the Ecliptic plane where the other planets (including the Earth) are, and would extremely rarely ever make a near approach to any of them.

There is even more compelling evidence that the near-approach or collision hypotheses could not have occurred. Since the collision theory is most popular right now, we will specifically consider it, but the same arguments apply to extremely close passages of massive planets. Conservation of energy and angular momentum must always apply. If an object that had the mass of Mars had impacted the Earth, at sufficient velocity to create a plume of material that would eventually form the Moon, it would certainly have significantly and permanently altered the orbit of the Earth. But, the Earth's orbit is quite circular and has an orbital plane that does not appear to have been altered from the plane of the orbits of the other planets. This fact alone would seem to make the collision and extreme near approach hypotheses to be unrealistic.

An additional complication for each of those theories is that they each propose a mechanism that has never been observed and that has no known method, that of orbiting material collecting itself to form the Moon. The commonly accepted opinions regarding the rings of Saturn suggest exactly the opposite, where a previously existing moon was destroyed to form the rings we now see.

What does this all imply? It seems to suggest that all of the capture or secondary creation theories regarding the formation of the Moon are extremely unlikely. That seems to leave the remaining two categories of theories listed above. However, the accumulation from debris theory still requires a process that is unknown and which is theoretically baseless, and which would seem to require a process that is exactly opposite what is thought to have occurred in the Saturn system. This seems to suggest that we should either look for new theories that would not be disruptive of the orbit of the Earth, or that we should give a new look to the dual planet hypothesis.

In recent years, computer technology has advanced greatly. It should now be possible to do computer simulations for the gravitational interactions between the multitude of individual particles of the original cloud. We know that there would have been a diversity of materials (including a lot of high-density iron and a lot of much lower density aluminum and silicon) in that cloud of particles. These density differences would have caused different gravitational attraction forces to have existed. Only extensive computer simulation would be able to determine more, but these differential effects might have caused a majority of the iron and the other heavy metals to have tended to collect together, into a clump that would eventually form the Earth, while a separate clump could have formed from materials left after these heavy metals were gravitationally differentially separated out. This second clump could have been the material that would eventually form the Moon. IF this has any validity, it could represent a possible explanation for the differences in general composition between the Earth and Moon.

On a slightly different subject, the Moon and Earth have a dance going of their own. Currently, the Moon revolves around the Earth about once every 27.3 days, and, of course, the Earth rotates on its axis about every 24 hours (Actually 23 hours and 56 minutes!) The Earth seems very rigid to us, but on a large scale, it is slightly flexible. When the Moon is overhead at a point, that location is about 4,000 miles closer to the Moon than the center of the Earth is (because of our 8,000 mile diameter). Gravity works stronger at closer distances (it's called an inverse square law), so the waters in the oceans at the spot directly under the Moon are actually pulled upwards by the Moon's gravity! This causes the Tides in the world's oceans. It actually turns out that, because the Earth is slightly flexible, even the ground is pulled upward at that location, generally on the scale of one foot. This is called Earth tides.

OK. Because the Earth is rotating fairly fast, the water (and ground) that is pulled upward in this way, actually gets carried out forward of the point directly under the Moon. This is mostly due to friction between the water in the oceans and the seafloor under it (and obstructions like islands and continents). This means the gravitational attraction (both ways) between the Moon and this 'tidal bulge' is NOT directly along the line between the center of the Earth and the center of the Moon. It is 'ahead' of that line. This has several interesting effects. First of all, the Moon is therefore gravitationally pulling that 'tidal bulge' BACKWARDS (a little). So, that tidal bulge winds up at a fairly stable angle ahead, with the Earth's rotation (and water-seafloor friction) pulling it forward and the Moon's gravity pulling it backwards. Since the Moon is pulling this bulge backwards, and there is still friction between the water and the seafloor, it actually has the effect of pulling the Earth backwards (a little) in its rotation. This effect is measurable, and acts to slow the Earth's rotation down, making the day longer. The effect is small, but over a million years, it apparently lengthens our day by about 20 seconds!

There is an interesting effect on the Moon, too. The gravitational force of the tidal bulge ON the Moon is slightly forward. This gives the Moon additional forward velocity. The effect of this, combined with the fact that the Earth-Moon system must maintain a constant total 'angular momentum', causes the Moon to gradually move farther out away from the Earth. This effect, too, is small, but it causes the Moon to move outward about 1.5 inches each year!

In a few billion years, the net effects of these things is this: The Moon will have receded to roughly 1.6 times as far away as it is now, and it will revolve around the Earth in about 55 days (so a month will be 55 of our present days). But the Earth will have slowed down in its rotation such that it will rotate once every 55 of our current days. So, the Moon will look much smaller than it does now, and it will stay fixed in one specific spot in the sky. Half of the people on Earth would never see the Moon, and the other half would permanently be able to see it! At that time, a month and a day will have the same length! The Earth will only rotate about 7 times in every year!

At that time, the retarding effect of the tidal bulge drag would have vanished completely, so the day would stop getting longer, and the Moon would stop receding, and they might stay forever 'locked' in a synchronous 'dance' with the Earth displaying one face to the Moon the way the Moon already does to the Earth. (That happened much quicker for the Moon because the Earth's mass (and therefore gravitational effects) is about 81 times as great as the Moon's. Whatever rotation the Moon started out with, those strong tidal effects caused the Moon to become 'locked' like that probably more than two billion years ago. The Earth has actually caused a permanent tide or distortion in the shape of the Moon, by many hundreds of feet!

Some theoreticians extend the future picture out farther yet. They claim that after a period of being synchronized like that, the Moon will start re-approaching the Earth in the VERY distant future, due to considerations regarding conservation of angular momentum. Such speculation seems only barely supportable, while all the circumstances above are mathematically sound and very likely to be true. Considering that all of the satellites in the solar system seem to be 'locked' like that (permanently facing their parent planet), it seems to be a stable final condition, and further orbital evolution seems improbable.

There are some individuals who try to extrapolate BACKWARDS in time, to see how the Earth and Moon might have been in the distant past. The various tidal effects do NOT have constant effect, but the effects depend on quite a few variables, like internal liquidity of the Earth and Moon, the presence and quantity of water in the Earth's oceans, and many smaller factors. The rate of day lengthening and Moon recession is nowhere close to being constant, and the rates for the distant past are probably beyond scientific capabilities and are nearly completely unsupported speculation.

Here is a graph of one set of predictions for the distance between the Earth and Moon since the formation of the Moon into the distant future.

Earth-Moon distance

The Moon holds many mysteries for science! After mankind watching it for many thousands of years, and people carefully plotting its exact position for hundreds of years, it seems nearly unbelievable that when President Kennedy announced that America would send man to walk on the Moon, there were not yet precise enough predictions available to know exactly where the Moon would be! A ferocious effort was begun to analyze all the complexities of the Moon's motions. We now know that the Moon's exact position in its orbit does not just depend on the Earth's gravitation and that of the Sun, but it is also measurably affected by the distant planets Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, and even the larger moons of Jupiter!

Interestingly, by the time America sent Apollo to land on the Moon in 1969, the analysis of exactly where the Moon would be was still not completed! As Apollo was launched, the very best data could only predict where the Moon would be (a few days later) within a few hundred feet! For NASA, this was a serious concern, because they wanted to KNOW how to calculate all the landing data, rocket burn times, etc, but since they didn't precisely know where the Moon would be, they couldn't! So they had to somewhat improvise on some details. Pretty amazing that after eight years of a really massive effort involving thousands of brilliant minds, we still couldn't predict where the Moon would be just a few days later!

That analysis is STILL not complete! We can now predict within a small number of feet where the Moon will be a few days later, but we still cannot accurately predict where it will be in a hundred years. Doesn't that seem amazing?

There are two specific aspects of the Moon which will be commented on here. They are both called "librations". First, the easier one, horizontal libration. Due to the gravitational tidal effects of the Earth, the Moon presents the same face toward the Earth. But not precisely! What this really means is that the Moon rotates on its axis in the same period that it revolves around the Earth. It's rotation on its axis is extremely constant, so every hour, it rotates essentially the same number of degrees. However, the Moon has an elliptic orbit, where it is sometimes closer or further from the Earth. Johann Kepler showed 400 years ago that it moves faster when it is closest and slowest when it is farthest. This has the effect of the Moon appearing to move farther (more degrees) in its orbit when it is near perigee (nearest the Earth). The net result of this is that we on Earth are then able to see slightly around one side or the other of the face of the Moon we generally see. This is essentially due to the fact that the Earth is at one focus of the elliptic orbit of the Moon and not at the very center of that ellipse. For this reason, long ago this effect got the name of "equation of the center". It is purely a geometric effect and has a maximum effect of around 6.3 degrees. So we on Earth can see an extra 6.3° of the Moon's longitude (beyond the standard 180°) on each side, due to the equation of the center. This can actually be enhanced a little if people observe the Moon near moonrise or moonset, because the observer is then shifted off to the side of the center of the Earth by nearly the radius of the Earth. This can add around one extra degree of horizontal libration. This last smaller effect is called diurnal libration.

Note that the face of the Moon is pointed at the "average" place the Earth appears. If a Moon person lived at the very nearest point on the Moon, where the Earth was directly overhead, the Earth would appear to weave back and forth (side to side) around 6.3° from being exactly overhead, due to the equation of the center geometrical effect of the elliptic orbit of the Moon. But ON THE AVERAGE the Earth would always be exactly overhead, what is to be expected of a moon that is gravitationally locked into having the same rotation and revolution period.

Regarding the difficulty of exactly locating where the Moon will be, note that the equation of the center also has the effect of causing the Moon to be up to 6.3° ahead or behind its "average" position in its orbit. The 2159 mile diameter Moon is around half a degree in angular size, so this means that the equation of the center sometimes causes the Moon to be 13 times that distance, around 27,000 miles ahead of or behind where it might otherwise be predicted. It would have been a real problem for Apollo if the Moon was 27,000 miles from where they intended to land! The other dozens of effects have smaller error than this, but even after calculating for all of them, there is still an uncertainty regarding precisely where the Moon will be in the future.

There is also a vertical libration. I see this as far more interesting! Logically, due to the gravitational locking process, the face of the Moon should be directed along its (average) orbit, in other words, essentially directly at the Earth. There should therefore be only a vertical libration due to the gradual shift (similar to precession) of the plane of the Moon's orbit. This would give us an extra view of around 5.1° of Moon latitude past the poles. However, the reality is that the face of the Moon is directed in a direction around 1°32' different from the Ecliptic! (Hayn's value). It is NOT faced toward the average location of the Earth, but 1.5° degrees away! This makes no sense at all! The plane of the Moon's orbit precesses around the pole of the Ecliptic, so the AVERAGE location of the Earth should be right on the Ecliptic (for the Moon). I have never seen a decent explanation why the Moon's face is pointed in a direction different from where it logically should be!

The above information was placed on the Internet in 2000. In August 2004, I see cause to add the following concept.

For several years, I have been investigating a possible combination of the fields of Forced Vibration and gravitation. I have had a web-page presentation of that subject (since 2001) at: Perturbation Theory Gravitationsl Theory and Resonance

That research has resulted in a conclusion that Forced Vibration (Resonances) specifically due to Jupiter, the most massive planet, result in other objects in the solar system SLOWLY getting to meta-stable near synchronicities with Jupiter. This would explain the Kirkwood gaps in the asteroid belt, the long Inequality of Jupiter and Saturn and many other currently observed situations. EXACT commensurability is mathematically shown to be extremely unstable, but two bands of near-commensurable orbital radii have been shown to be strongly meta-stable. There are also mathematical consequences that tend to encourage more circular orbits (lower eccentricity) and less inclined orbits.

These comments require an amazing pre-condition, that of a VIOLATION of the Conservation of Angular Momentum! But that is the case, and it is proven to be true. It can only occur due to Precession, or more technically, Regression of the Nodes of an orbit, which violates the Conservation of Angular Momentum. And that then permits these orbital changes described where ALL the orbital elements can be altered due to perturbations.

Eventually, these (very slow acting) effects suggested another application. Since they require many thousands of orbits to have significant effects, what about the effect of an initial SINGLE proto-planet (proto-Jupiter) on the relatively randomly orbiting material circling the Sun? If the effect of proto-Jupiter would be to create Kirkwood-type gaps and segregation of those particles, as well as getting their individual orbits to slowly become co-planar and relatively circular, given enough time, this would CREATE very narrow rings around the Sun! And, once billions of tons of tiny particles were essentially sharing an orbit around the Sun, it seems logical to conclude that they would all slowly gravitationally collect into small and then bigger objects, due to slight variations in the density of the material along the rings.

Regarding the Earth specifically, proto-Jupiter would have created TWO rings around the Sun at roughly the Earth's orbital distance, one being around a million miles OUTSIDE of an exact commensurable orbit of 1/12 of Jupiter's period, and the other being around a million miles INSIDE that exact commensurable orbit. Therefore TWO significant objects could have formed in very similar orbits. The outer of the two may have collected more debris and therefore grown to be much more massive, by a factor of 81:1. Two nearby clumps might then have started forming and growing in their separate orbits. They would pass each other very closely every few dozen years, tremendously perturbing each other's orbits. They would then have been a proto-Earth and a proto-Moon. As millions and billions of orbits continued, both of them would have consistently been pelted by other aggregations of material that continued to share the same orbit. Early on, both the Earth and Moon would have rapidly gained mass in this way. The Earth, soon being the larger, and therefore more massive, of the two, may have been able to deflect / attract more of the higher density aggregations, and therefore resulted in a higher average internal density.

During the first few million years, both the Earth and Moon would have then collected the bulk of their mass. In both cases, it would have been like they were in a shooting gallery in a narrow tunnel! Countless objects of all sizes would have been crashing into both, at actually fairly minimal differential velocity, since they were already sharing the same orbit. After those first few million years, with the effect of Jupiter's forced vibration resonance acting to keep adding new material into the orbit, the aggregations that had not yet collided with the Earth or Moon would have gotten gradually more massive. When they eventually collided with one or the other, these thousand ton or million ton objects would have created large craters, such as we see on the Moon today. The Earth certainly also had countless similar craters, but our atmosphere and rain and weathering have eroded all but the most recent. The Moon, without an atmosphere, displays the craters probably as they originally looked.

The general discussion of this planet creation effect due to a Forced Vibration Resonance with Jupiter is in a web presentation at:

Origin of the Earth

However, this specific discussion is describing an entirely new possibility for how the Moon formed. It is certainly a variation of the "dual planet" hypothesis, but it includes a realistic logic of how the two could have gradually formed, over a few million years. They would have revolved around the Sun for countless millions of years, until finally a series of perturbations caused the Moon to be shunted into the Earth's orbit at one of the near passes. The Moon would then have been traveling at an orbital speed very similar to that of Earth, and so the capture speed would have been realistically possible. This does not require any high-speed illogical impact with some wildly erratic planet sized object, to blow the Earth apart and spew out material to form the Moon, or any of the other logical stretches that seem to be involved with all the hypotheses which are or have been popular. It is quiet, mundane, and very methodical and slow!

Notice that there is a variation that is also possible. If Jupiter had herded material into our orbit, it might have been possible that two separate large aggregations might have orbited for some extended time, possibly at Lagrangian points (1/6 of the way around the orbit apart, like Trojan asteroids share Jupiter's orbit, with some 60 degree ahead of Jupiter and others 60 degrees behind). Then, something disturbed the Lagrangian stability and the Earth and Moon might have slowly approached each other. The reasoning would be that they went into orbit rather than colliding!

An interesting implication of all this is that if any other star had a proto-planet, a very similar pattern of planets, all with relatively simple (near) commensurable orbital times, should then have occurred. This would suggest then that our Solar System is probably quite similar to many others, around single stars that have had a few billion years of stable existence.

The hypothesis suggested here should have at least two observable results. The Earth and Moon clearly have cleaned up virtually all of the particles that would have once shared our orbit around the Sun, but there should still be wisps of material still sharing our orbit, especially since Jupiter would still be helping herd additional particles into our orbit. If our best space-based telescopes are directed exactly ahead of or behind the Earth in our orbit, maybe we would be able to see a faint Gegenschein-type glow. Maybe the Zodiacal light is due to such an effect.

The second empirical evidence might be harder to observe. The Forced Vibration meta-stable mathematical solution provides TWO equally meta-stable orbits. If the Earth and Jupiter are currently in a 1:12 near resonance, the unstable (1:12) orbital radius for the Earth would be around 0.992742 AU from the Sun instead of our current 1.0000. That's about 675,000 miles closer to the Sun than The Earth is. Therefore, if there is material orbiting in the opposite meta-stable orbit, it would be orbiting around 1,350,000 miles closer to the Sun than we are. It may or may not be possible to sense very small particles that far away. Maybe some previous spacecraft has passed through that region and had micrometeorite sensors. It would be a simple experiment to do, which could either confirm or deny this hypothesis.

For many centuries, people have occasionally observed a phenomenon called the Zodiacal Light. It is a vaguely glowing area of sky, along the Ecliptic (Zodiac) and relatively near the Sun. It is too faint to be seen during the daytime, and can only occasionally be seen just after dusk or before dawn, as a faint glow. If the particles suggested above actually exist, either sharing Earth's orbit or orbiting in the second meta-stable orbit, their appearance might be very similar to the Zodiacal Light.

The general assumption regarding Saturn's rings and other such ring structures is that they are the RESULTS of a catastrophic destruction of a moon due to huge tidal forces (coming within the Roche limit). This hypothesis has the opposite conclusion! A ring might be an intermediary state (due to Forced Vibration Resonance), which would then be FORMING a new moon, one which would necessarily have an orbit virtually co-planar with the planet's equator and nearly circular. The moon might exist AFTER the ring, and not before it!

Such rings that formed farther out would be less disturbed by gravitational variations and might be more able to gravitationally collect into moons. Rings nearer a parent planet might experience much more perturbation disruption and not easily form into moons.

Link to a more thorough mathematical discussion of these tidal issues, is on Ocean Tides - The Physics and Logic Mathematical Explanation of Tides

Link to a more thorough mathematical discussion of precession issues, is on Precession of Gyroscopes and of the Earth Gyroscope Precession and Precession of the Earth's Equinoxes

This presentation was first placed on the Internet in June 2000.

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C Johnson, Theoretical Physicist, Physics Degree from Univ of Chicago