November 20, 2007
This artist's animation shows bodies as big as mountain ranges smashing together. Such collisions form the basis of the planet-building process. An even bigger collision between Earth and a body the size of Mars is thought to have created our moon. Image credit: NASA/JPL/Caltech
The next time you take a moonlit stroll, or admire a full, bright-white moon looming in the night sky, you might count yourself lucky. New observations from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope suggest that moons like Earth's - that formed out of tremendous collisions - are uncommon in the universe, arising at most in only 5 to 10 percent of planetary systems.
"When a moon forms from a violent collision, dust should be blasted everywhere," said Nadya Gorlova of the University of Florida, Gainesville, lead author of a new study appearing Nov. 20 in the Astrophysical Journal. "If there were lots of moons forming, we would have seen dust around lots of stars - but we didn't."
It's hard to imagine Earth without a moon. Our familiar white orb has long been the subject of art, myth and poetry. Wolves howl at it, and humans have left footprints in its soil. Life itself might have evolved from the ocean to land thanks to tides induced by the moon's gravity.
Scientists believe the moon arose about 30 to 50 million years after our sun was born, and after our rocky planets had begun to take shape. A body as big as Mars is thought to have smacked into our infant Earth, breaking off a piece of its mantle. Some of the resulting debris fell into orbit around Earth, eventually coalescing into the moon we see today. The other moons in our solar system either formed simultaneously with their planet or were captured by their planet's gravity