The Role of Multiple Giant Impacts in the Formation of the Earth–Moon System

Robert I. Citron1, Hagai B. Perets2, and Oded Aharonson3
The Astrophysical Journal 862, 5 Link to Article [https://doi.org/10.3847/1538-4357/aaca2d]
1Department of Earth and Planetary Science, University of California, Berkeley, CA, USA
2Department of Astrophysics, Israel Institute of Technology, Haifa, Israel
3Department of Earth and Planetary Science, Weizmann Institute of Science, Rehovot, Israel

The Earth–Moon system is suggested to have formed through a single giant collision, in which the Moon accreted from the impact-generated debris disk. However, such giant impacts are rare, and during its evolution, the Earth experienced many more smaller impacts, producing smaller satellites that potentially coevolved. In the multiple-impact hypothesis of lunar formation, the current Moon was produced from the mergers of several smaller satellites (moonlets), each formed from debris disks produced by successive large impacts. In the Myr between impacts, a pre-existing moonlet tidally evolves outward until a subsequent impact forms a new moonlet, at which point both moonlets will tidally evolve until a merger or system disruption. In this work, we examine the likelihood that pre-existing moonlets survive subsequent impact events, and explore the dynamics of Earth–moonlet systems that contain two moonlets generated Myr apart. We demonstrate that pre-existing moonlets can tidally migrate outward, remain stable during subsequent impacts, and later merge with newly created moonlets (or re-collide with the Earth). Formation of the Moon from the mergers of several moonlets could therefore be a natural byproduct of the Earth’s growth through multiple impacts. More generally, we examine the likelihood and consequences of Earth having prior moons, and find that the stability of moonlets against disruption by subsequent impacts implies that several large impacts could post-date Moon formation.

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