The Implications of the Moon-Forming Impact for Terrestrial Oxidation State and Surface Water Stability
Abstract:The fraction of the Moon made from Earth at the time of the moon-forming impact and the amount of impactor it contains are major questions concerning the origin of the Earth-Moon system. Earth’s mantle and the Moon are distinctive in their FeO contents and some trace element ratios (e.g. Nb/Ta) but identical in their isotopes of O, Si, W, Ti and Cr. The latter observation implies that they are made from exactly the same material but the former implies the opposite. Due to the pressure-dependence and redox-sensitive nature of W partitioning between metallic core and silicate mantle, the identical W isotopic ratios of both bodies is hard to reconcile. One possible solution is that the impactor and the proto-Earth were not only of similar composition but also essentially the same size - a rather unlikely coincidence.
An alternative scenario which we have modeled chemically and isotopically is that the proto-Earth, with a higher mantle FeO content than present, was struck by an early-formed, highly-reduced impactor. The core of the impactor merged with that of Earth, as depicted in most simulations. The moon, containing a similar proportion of impactor material to that of the Earth (<15%), can be viewed as a ‘snap-shot’ of proto-Earth’s mantle. This produced a Moon identical to the Earth’s mantle in isotopic composition, but with elevated mantle Nb/Ta and FeO contents. Evidence of FeO-rich domains in Archaean mantle (Francis, Lithos v.71, 2003) would be consistent with an FeO-rich terrestrial protomantle.
Changes in mantle FeO content have implications for the stability of liquid H2O at the surface. More FeO-rich mantles (e.g Mars) generate basalts which are more susceptible to serpentinisation and hence to the consumption of surface water. Thus we can argue that the impactor delivered volatiles to the Earth and the ability to retain water in surface reservoirs.