Zirconium isotope constraints on the composition of Theia and current Moon-forming theories

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The giant impact theory is the most widely recognized formation scenario of the Earth's Moon. Giant impact models based on dynamical simulations predict that the Moon acquired a significant amount of impactor (Theia) material, which is challenging to reconcile with geochemical data for O, Si, Cr, Ti and W isotopes in the Earth and Moon. Three new giant impact scenarios have been proposed to account for this discrepancy – hit-and-run impact, impact with a fast-spinning protoEarth and massive impactors – each one reducing the proportion of the impactor in the Moon compared to the original canonical giant impact model. The validity of each theory and their different dynamical varieties are evaluated here using an integrated approach that considers new high-precision Zr isotope measurements of lunar rocks, and quantitative geochemical modelling of the isotopic composition of the impactor Theia. All analysed lunar samples (whole-rock, ilmenite and pyroxene separates) display identical Zr isotope compositions to that of the Earth within the uncertainty of 13 ppm for 96Zr/90Zr (2σ weighted average). This 13 ppm upper limit is used to infer the most extreme isotopic composition that Theia could have possessed, relative to the Earth, for each of the proposed giant impact theories. The calculated Theian composition is compared with the Zr isotope compositions of different solar system materials in order to constrain the source region of the impactor. As a first order approximation, we show that all considered models (including the canonical) are plausible, alleviating the initial requirement for the new giant impact models. Albeit, the canonical and hit-and-run models are the most restrictive, suggesting that the impactor originated from a region close to the Earth. The fast-spinning protoEarth and massive impactor models are more relaxed and increase the allowed impactor distance from the Earth. Similar calculations carried out for O, Cr, Ti and Si isotope data support these conclusions but exclude a CI- and enstatite chondrite-like composition for Theia. Thus, the impactor Theia most likely had a Zr isotope composition close to that of the Earth, and this suggests that a large part of the inner solar system (or accretion region of the Earth, Theia and enstatite chondrites) had a uniform Zr isotope composition.




Akram, W., & Schönbächler, M. (2016). Zirconium isotope constraints on the composition of Theia and current Moon-forming theories. Earth and Planetary Science Letters, 449, 302–310. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.epsl.2016.05.022

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