Moon may have once been part of Earth

You wanted to know

"Was the moon actually part of the Earth before that meteor crash?" asked a camper from the Lake County Forest Preserve Fishing Camp offered last summer at Independence Grove in Libertyville.

There have been many theories about the moon's origins, including one that describes a hunk of the Earth spinning off the planet, leaving a dent in the Pacific Ocean, said Larry Taylor, a professor of geology and geochemistry and chairman of the Planetary Geosciences Institute at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.

Taylor, who studies the moon and its composition, noted his proudest moment was as one of the team of 25 or 30 scientists - the eyes and ears at mission control - who were in constant contact with three astronauts as they stepped out of their Apollo rocket and onto the moon in December 1972.

Taylor was on-site at Houston's Johnson Space Center, responding "Roger, that" to the astronauts as they took part in EVAs - extravehicular activities - that brought them out of Apollo 17 and onto the moon to collect rock samples.

Of note on that moon walk mission was the makeup of the three-member crew - two pilots and, in a NASA rocket mission first, a third astronaut who's profession was geologist/petrologist.

"Jack" Harrison Schmitt joined the Apollo 17 crew in what ended up as the last mission NASA flew to the moon.

"There's not much difference between parts from the Earth and parts from the moon," Taylor said.

The science community explains the origins of the moon as stemming from a giant collision between an oversized asteroid the size of Mars that struck the Earth some four and a half billion years ago. Theia, the extra-large space object, gouged Earth. The impact sent Theia soaring into the atmosphere where parts of the pulverized protoplanet aggregated with Earth debris and became our moon.

Scientists wish the differences between rocks from our planet and the moon rocks were more significant and incorporated elements not found on Earth, elements that might have come from Theia. However, analyses show similarity. It's possible Theia's makeup resembled the Earth and moon, and that's why moon rock samples don't include random, unknown properties.

It's been more than 40 years since the Apollo 17 crew set foot on the moon, gathering rock and soil samples and fulfilling the dream of space travel conjured up when man first gazed at our brilliant satellite.

Taylor still feels disappointment at NASA's decision to redirect missions and research from moon travel to Mars travel. Still close with fellow geologist Jack Schmitt, Taylor sees great value in NASA returning to the moon.

"On Earth, we have lots of problems with energy, and although we have fracking, these sources will dry up. There's a particular element, Helium-3, available in the soil of the moon. It can be one of the best nuclear fuels because it has no byproducts."

Taylor believes the moon can be a great springboard for travel into the universe.

"Between 80 (percent) and 88 percent of a rocket is fuel," that weighs down the rocket and makes long-distance travel more complicated, Taylor said. "NASA is not taking advantage of the large steppingstone into space."

Taylor explains that a new space flight program could use the moon as a space gas station and, after refueling, shuttles could take off for Mars or other more distant planets.

"There are a few of us die-hards who are still trying," he said.

Take a look at a real moon rock. The Johnson Space Center in Houston; the Kennedy Space Center in Merritt Island, Florida; the American Natural History Museum in New York; and the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., display moon rock samples. You can actually touch a sample at the Smithsonian museum.

Moon and Mars flecks litter the Earth's surface in the form of meteorites. Taylor said they are most frequently found in icy areas or in deserts, even though they actually pepper the planet's entire surface.

Chicago's Field Museum Robert A. Pritzker Center for Meteoritics and Polar Studies offers an extensive meteorite collection with more than 7,500 samples and a searchable database. The exhibit includes rare fossil meteorites.

Check it out

Cook Memorial Library in Libertyville suggests these titles on the moon and meteors:

• "Exploring Meteors" by Rebecca Olien

• "Seven Wonders of the Rocky Planets and Their Moons" by Ron Mille

• "The Moon: Earth's Neighbor" by David Jefferi

• "What is the Moon Made Of?: and other questions kids have about space" by Donna H. Bowman

• "The Blue Marble: How a Photograph Revealed Earth's Fragile Beauty" by Don Nardo

• DVD: Interviews with astronauts, including Dr. Jack Schmitt, "In the Shadow of the Moon" DOX Productions Ltd.

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