NASA Hunts for Remains of an Ancient Planet Near Earth

Four and a half billion years ago two planets were set on a collision course with destiny. One world was utterly destroyed and another was to be reborn and rise like a Phoenix out of the ashes of this titanic conflagration to be sent on an evolutionary trajectory that would lead to non living matter evolving into life and consciousness. One day these sentient creatures that inhabit this world began to ask serious question concerning the origins of their planet and its natural satellite. So four and a half eons after the birth of their world they begin searching for the remnants of the world that gave birth to their own.

The Earth and the life that graces its skies, oceans and landmasses owe their existence to the cataclysmic event described above. If this collision did not occur and the Earth had no Moon, the evolutionary history of our world would be very different and perhaps life and humankind may have never come into existence.

NASA has begun the search for the world that created our moon. The name of this world is Theia.

The “Theia hypothesis” is a brainchild of Princeton theorists Edward Belbruno and Richard Gott. It starts with the popular Great Impact theory of the Moon’s origin. Many astronomers hold that in the formative years of the solar system, a Mars-sized proto-planet crashed into Earth. Debris from the collision, a mixture of material from both bodies, spun out into Earth orbit and coalesced into the Moon. This scenario explains many aspects of lunar geology including the size of the Moon’s core and the density and isotopic composition of moon rocks.

It’s a good theory, but it leaves one awkward question unanswered: Where did the enormous proto-planet come from?

Belbruno and Gott believe it came from a Sun-Earth Lagrange point.

NASA’s twin STEREO probes are entering a mysterious region of space to look for remains of an ancient planet which once orbited the Sun not far from Earth. If they find anything, it could solve a major puzzle–the origin of the Moon.

“The name of the planet is Theia,” says Mike Kaiser, STEREO project scientist at the Goddard Space Flight Center. “It’s a hypothetical world. We’ve never actually seen it, but some researchers believe it existed 4.5 billion years ago—and that it collided with Earth to form the Moon.”

If this idea is correct, Theia itself is long gone, but some of the ancient planetesimals that failed to join Theia may still be lingering at L4 or L5.

“The STEREO probes are entering these regions of space now,” says Kaiser. “This puts us in a good position to search for Theia’s asteroid-sized leftovers.”

Just call them “Theiasteroids.”

Hunting for Theiasteroids is not STEREO’s primary mission, he points out. “STEREO is a solar observatory. The two probes are flanking the sun on opposite sides to gain a 3D view of solar activity. We just happen to be passing through the L4 and L5 Lagrange points en route. This is purely bonus science.”

As of yet the remnants of Theia have not been found. This may lead us to a new hypothesis concerning the Moon’s origin. That will be the subject of another article on Discovery Enterprise. So stay tuned.


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