Each night when I get home, I let the dogs out in the garden and look to the skies for entertainment and inspiration. Maybe I'll see the three stars which lie in a straight line – Alnitak, Alnilan and Mintaka – better known as part of Orion's Belt. Or maybe I'll see the brightest star in our night sky – Sirius A – a star so bright it was worshipped by our ancient ancestors. Yet, the attraction that I look forward to most is that of the humble moon.
As we know, the moon is a planetary body which orbits the Earth. Essentially a satellite with gravitational powers, it controls the tides through its gravitational pull and lets us Earth-dwellers know when 'night' will fall – that constructed term that we associate with time or darkness. The Earth was thought to have collided with Theia – another planetary body roughly the size of Mars – sending off lots of matter which formed what we acknowledge as the moon.
Imagine my intrigue when I read a headline in the Independent recently entitled: 'Moon is much older than we thought, scientists find'.
The Independent article claims that we were 150 million years out in our estimate of how old the moon actually is. The new figure is believed to be a crumbly 4.51 billions years old. This exciting information came from the analysis of materials brought back to Earth by Apollo 14 scientists in 1971. The material in question is zircon, found in lunar rocks. Containing tiny traces of radioactive substances, zircon has been described by Professor Kevin McKeegan of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) as 'nature’s best clock'.
The new predicted difference in age of the moon is huge but does it really matter? Scientists believe that this new information could solve the mystery of why the Earth and moon are so atomically similar. It could also suggest that the Earth started to evolve much earlier than previously thought. The essence of life – us – effectively started earlier. If we understand when celestial bodies are formed, maybe we can better understand the conditions under which they were formed?
To date only 12 people have set foot on the Moon and half of them are now dead. Just last week the only man to walk on its surface more than once – US astronaut Gene Cernan – died at the age of 82. But the moonwalking adventures of the 1960s and 70s may never happen again. Nasa has no future plans to coordinate any further manned missions to the moon, instead wanting to concentrate on their 'journey to Mars': the journey which would successfully send humans to Mars in the 2030s.
The debate on the moon’s age will no doubt continue. Maybe it will tell us more about ourselves than we first thought.