The Moon's history of violence

By Phil Plait | March 14, 2012 1:53 pm

The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter is a NASA space probe that’s been orbiting the Moon since June 23, 2009. On March 19 it will mark its 1000th day in orbit! To celebrate, NASA released this cool animation showing the history of the Moon:

According to current thinking, the Moon itself formed after a planet roughly the size of Mars slammed into the Earth at a glancing blow. This colossal impact threw billions of gigatons of debris into space. Some of that fell back onto Earth, and some formed a huge disk around the (now once again liquefied) planet. This material eventually coalesced to form the Moon.

But the story wasn’t done: with impact after impact, wave after wave of bombarding material shaped and reshaped the Moon’s surface. The animation above is a bit fanciful – it has sound, of course, and it shows time as a variable that flows at different rates – but gives a lovely overview of the violent past of our satellite. I like how I could see various features forming, knowing eventually they would be the familiar sites (and sights) I see through my telescope eyepiece. It’s a good reminder that the way we see things now is not the way they’ve always been, and that sometimes the forces that shape our current circumstances are not necessarily gentle or subtle.

[My congrats to everyone on the LRO team for 1000 days of amazing science! If you want to see more about LRO, I’ve written about it dozens of times, and you can also check the Related Posts below.]

Related Posts:

The extraordinary face of the Moon
The extraordinary back of the Moon
Majestic mountains of the Moon
Zoom in on a HUGE lunar bullseye

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, NASA

Comments (33)

  1. It just goes to show, a planet does not always have to clear its own orbit of debris all on its own. :)
    And the moon is doing a good job of intercepting some assorted debris even today, click my name for the NASA site and scroll down the page a bit.

  2. Hampus

    Awesome. I would love it if they made one about the earths evolution.

  3. Lee from NC

    Pause it at 0.27 and it looks like the Fesarius. :)

  4. A hot Moon – that’s really cool! One small niggle though, I don’t much care for the term “evolution” regarding the formation of the Moon – that particular word is already badly misunderstood, usually by people who don’t want to understand in the first place. Let’s be clear – the Moon did not “evolve”; its formation had nothing to do with biological Evolution (with a capital E) – just to pre-empt anybody who tries to twist that title into an Evolution denial rant. (Don’t laugh – it’s happened before!)

  5. Naked Bunny with a Whip

    Elwood, if someone wants to go that far off the rails, I doubt a preemptive explanation would matter.

    I don’t see biologists referring to biological evolution with a capital “E” anyway.

  6. Gary Ansorge

    Wow! It’s been 1000 days already?

    I guess it’s true. The older you are, the quicker time flies,,,

    Cool animation but,,,where are the Transformers???

    Gary 7

  7. Ron Sharp

    Nice, but I was expecting it to start with the proto-Earth and Mars-sized-planet impact. (That Mars-sized-planet needs a name. Barsoom?)

  8. chief

    Does that mean that John Carter didn’t travel that far to Barsoom. It was a more local body but sadly, was to meet its end with a merging with the earth.

    I am again reminded of the two book series of When Worlds Collide.

  9. Alexf

    What? The moon wasn’t made in 7 days 6,000 years ago?

    I’ll be damned!

    Seriously: Awesome video. Now I understand the formation of the maria a lot better.

  10. Crux Australis

    It’s amazing to think that some of the features we see now, were still being formed when our ancestors swam the seas of Earth.

    Also, about the heavy bombardments; any thoughts on why they in those bursts? I know that lunar impacts still occur today, but why were they in those two particular epochs?

  11. Phil Rounds

    Awesome! (The sound effects were very good too!)

  12. Greg

    Hey, Phil. I’ve noticed as an RSS consumer of your page that the full content is no longer available. The RSS version terminates in the middle of the third paragraph.

    Is this intentional? I seem to recall that you had “views” on (not) restricting how your content is consumed.

    The extra wait to load a browser on my phone for my BA fix has been killin’ me 😉

  13. I wonder what happened to the Mars sized body that gave a glancing blow? Would I be correct in assuming it wasn’t Mars?

  14. Messier Tidy Upper

    @ ^ Shane : Given Mars still exists and is half an Astronomical Unit away from us at closest – the second closest planet after Venus – er, yup. 😉


    Superluminous, beautiful video there – love it. :-)

    Just one small thing – some of that vulcanism and cratering would have been happening simultaneously – and it hasn’t finished evolving yet with impacts still occurring infrequently. 😉

  15. Wonderful video, sir, but I must ‘say’, after 7 or 8 years reading this weblog, I have yet to see a post related to, what has to be, the greatest structure in the entire solar system; namely Mts. Piton and Pico. Where is the love for the destruction that formed Sea Imbrium? Where, I ask?

  16. Simon

    Phil, me old mucker, how wrong you are! Did you not know that the craters of the moon are obviously caused by splashes from the waters of the great flood?

    It’s all explained here…!/photo.php?fbid=352889491422575&set=a.284444838267041.74398.284438941600964&type=1&theater

    I wish I was making that up! There are folks out there who accept this stuff without question!

  17. John EB Good

    Are the explosion noises in space more forgivable when added on the soundtrack by NASA rather than Roland Emmerich, Joss Whedon or Ridley Scott? 😉

    I tend to forgive the artist long before the scientist on this kind of error (or more exactly, such a liberal artistic choice). Lets remember that specific video next time we wanna dismiss the scientifically incorrect yet entertaining flick, here. Especially if it excites us about space, what’s up there and makes us wanna go.

    @15: shane: (and all interested on this theory about the Moon’s formation) see:

  18. TR

    Here is a question for the thread:

    It is clear that the video not only plays fast-and-loose with time in an absolute sense, but it also allows for multiple simultaneous timelines (i.e. cooling events which would have taken hundreds or thousands of years are shown with the same lighting, indicating they took less than a month).

    So, here is my question: did the multiple impacts that constituted the various phases of the Moon’s formation happen more-or-less simultaneously, as the video implies?

    From my limited understanding of lunar geology (lunology?), it seems that the basin formed ~4 billion years ago likely would have resulted from a large portion of the surface being molten at the same time. But does that necessarily require that the impacts all happened at once, or is the cooling gradual enough that they could have been separated by decades? Centuries? Millennia?

    And what about the “Intermediate Cratering” phase? Did those impacts really occur in such rapid succession that there was eject from more than one collision “airborne” at the same moment? Did all of the impacts occur before the crater from the first had even cooled? Do/can we know?

    My thanks to anyone who can clarify.

    (And before someone points out that the lighting shown could be the result of taking time-lapsed images at carefully-chosen moments – or that this is just a visualization and realistic lighting would be a distraction – I get all that. I’m not complaining about the video; it’s wonderful. I’m just pointing out that it’s not clear that the video realistically represents the period between individual impacts within an event/phase, and I’m wondering if anyone can tell me what the frequency of those impacts actually was.)

  19. Naked Bunny with a Whip : I am well aware that biologists don’t spell evolution with a capital E; I was using that as a literary device to make the distinction between the sound scientific theory of that name and careless use of the word itself, which was the point of my post in the first place. Surely you can understand that without the need to nit-pick.

  20. Svlad Cjelli

    Elwood Herring, in what is this use careless?

  21. Nerdy Chuckles

    That’s no moon

  22. Brian Too

    Done with style, and it streamed smoothly at 720p. Double win!

  23. Very much appreciate the BA cosmos, and hope you and other readers will consider the Moonpark project… Preserving our near neighbor (in a john muir kind of way) may set a fine precedent for our approach to wilder exploration. Might even give nations something to cooperate on. Keep up the inspiring work!

  24. TheBlackCat

    @ Ron Sharp: The Mars-sized planet already has a name: Theia.

  25. DHSmonkey

    They missed the part where Chairhead tried to carve his name in it. WTF?

  26. James

    Has anything hit the moon recently? Hard enough to photograph, I mean.


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