The moon formed inside a hot cosmic doughnut, scientists say

Since ancient times, people have marveled at the moon, worshipped the moon, written songs about the moon — and wondered how it came to be.

In recent decades the scientific consensus has been that the moon formed billions of years ago from debris cast off when a Mars-sized object dealt Earth a glancing blow. But a radical new theory holds that some long-ago giant collision actually disintegrated Earth, causing it to balloon out into a vast doughnut-shaped cloud of vaporized rock, which the scientists who developed the theory dubbed a "synestia." They say the moon subsequently formed within this cosmic maelstrom.

The new theory could reshape ideas about how Earth and other planetary systems came to be, according to the team of astronomers behind it.

"It was sort of serendipity, combined with a number of eureka moments," Simon Lock, a graduate student in the department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Harvard University and one of the astronomers, said about the process that led to the development of the new theory.

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TOPSHOT - A person poses for a photo as the moon rises over Griffith Park in Los Angeles, California, on January 30, 2018. Many parts of the globe may catch a glimpse on january 31 of a giant crimson moon, thanks to a rare lunar trifecta that combines a blue moon, a super moon and a total eclipse. The spectacle, which NASA has coined a 'super blue blood moon.' / AFP PHOTO / Robyn Beck (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)
A full moon is seen behind the business tower Lakhta Centre, which is under construction in St. Petersburg, Russia January 31, 2018. REUTERS/Anton Vaganov TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A blue moon rises over Balboa Park's California Tower in San Diego, California, U.S., January 30, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Blake
The moon sets behind the city of Jerusalem early on January 31, 2018. A cosmic event not seen in 36 years -- a rare 'super blood blue moon' -- may be glimpsed today in parts of western North America, Asia, the Middle East, Russia and Australia. / AFP PHOTO / MENAHEM KAHANA (Photo credit should read MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images)
Jan 30, 2018; Senoia, GA, USA; Delta flight 1789 a MD-90 aircraft from Atlanta to Jacksonville transits across the super moon over the evening sky in Georgia. A rare celestial phenomenon when a super moon, blue moon and total lunar eclipse will take place at the same time in the early morning hours of Jan 31st. Mandatory Credit: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
ISTANBUL, TURKEY - JANUARY 31: Full moon is seen over Galata Tower in Istanbul, Turkey on January 31, 2018. (Photo by Emrah Yorulmaz/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
The full moon rises from Legazpi City, Albay province, south of Manila on January 31, 2018. Skywatchers were hoping for a rare lunar eclipse that combines three unusual events -- a blue moon, a super moon and a total eclipse -- which was to make for a large crimson moon viewable in many corners of the globe. / AFP PHOTO / TED ALJIBE (Photo credit should read TED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty Images)
SAKHALIN REGION, RUSSIA - JANUARY 31, 2018: A red supermoon rises over hills near the city of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk on Sakhalin Island in Russia's Far East. Sergei Krasnoukhov/TASS (Photo by Sergei Krasnoukhov\TASS via Getty Images)
YUZHNO-SAKHALINSK, RUSSIA - JANUARY 31, 2018: A supermoon rises over trees in the town of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk on Sakhalin Island in Russia's Far East. Sergei Krasnoukhov/TASS (Photo by Sergei Krasnoukhov\TASS via Getty Images)
NAPIER, NEW ZEALAND - JANUARY 31: Crowds gather on the Marine Parade Beach to watch the moon rise on January 31, 2018 in Napier, New Zealand. A Super Blue Blood Moon is the result of three lunar phenomena happening all at once: not only it it the second full moon in January, but the moon will also be close to its nearest point to Earth on its orbit, and be totally eclipsed by the Earth's shadow. The last time these events coincided was in 1866, 152 years ago. (Photo by Kerry Marshall/Getty Images)
ISTANBUL, TURKEY - JANUARY 31: Full moon is seen over Galata Tower in Istanbul, Turkey on January 31, 2018. (Photo by Emrah Yorulmaz/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
The moon sets behind the city of Jerusalem early on January 31, 2018. A cosmic event not seen in 36 years -- a rare 'super blood blue moon' -- may be glimpsed today in parts of western North America, Asia, the Middle East, Russia and Australia. / AFP PHOTO / MENAHEM KAHANA (Photo credit should read MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images)
SAKHALIN REGION, RUSSIA - JANUARY 31, 2018: A red supermoon rises over hills near the city of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk on Sakhalin Island in Russia's Far East. Sergei Krasnoukhov/TASS (Photo by Sergei Krasnoukhov\TASS via Getty Images)
AMBOY, CA - JANUARY 30: The Moon rises over the Mojave Desert before becoming a so-called 'super blue blood moon' when it becomes totally eclipsed before dawn, on January 30, 2018 near Amboy, California. The 'super blue blood moon' is a rare 'lunar trifecta' event in which the Moon is at its closest to the Earth, appearing about 14 percent brighter than usual, and is simultaneously a 'blue moon', the second full moon in the same month, as well as a total lunar eclipse or 'blood moon'. Such a lunar event that hasn't been seen since 1866. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
AMBOY, CA - JANUARY 30: The Moon rises over the Mojave Desert before becoming a so-called 'super blue blood moon' when it becomes totally eclipsed before dawn, on January 30, 2018 near Amboy, California. The 'super blue blood moon' is a rare 'lunar trifecta' event in which the Moon is at its closest to the Earth, appearing about 14 percent brighter than usual, and is simultaneously a 'blue moon', the second full moon in the same month, as well as a total lunar eclipse or 'blood moon'. Such a lunar event that hasn't been seen since 1866. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
ISTANBUL, TURKEY - JANUARY 31: Full moon is seen over Galata Tower in Istanbul, Turkey on January 31, 2018. (Photo by Emrah Yorulmaz/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
View of a full moon rising at dusk, in Cali, Colombia on January 30, 2018. Many parts of the globe may catch a glimpse Wednesday of a giant crimson moon, thanks to a rare lunar trifecta that combines a blue moon, a super moon and a total eclipse. The spectacle, which NASA has coined a 'super blue blood moon,' will grace the pre-dawn skies in the western United States, as the moon crosses into the shadow of the Earth and turns blood red. / AFP PHOTO / Luis ROBAYO (Photo credit should read LUIS ROBAYO/AFP/Getty Images)
A super moon is seen near rooftop lights in Washington, DC on January 30, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / Andrew CABALLERO-REYNOLDS (Photo credit should read ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP/Getty Images)
VAN, TURKEY - JANUARY 29: A halo is seen around a full moon during nightfall in Van, Turkey on January 29, 2018. (Photo by Ozkan Bilgin/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
ISTANBUL, TURKEY - JANUARY 30: A bird flies as Full moon rises over Istanbul, Turkey on January 30, 2018. (Photo by Sebnem Coskun/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
ISTANBUL, TURKEY - JANUARY 31: Full moon is seen over Galata Tower as a boat passes through a strait in Istanbul, Turkey on January 31, 2018. (Photo by Emrah Yorulmaz/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
A Super moon rise in the sky of Kolkata,India on January 30, 2018. (Photo by Debajyoti Chakraborty/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
ST PETERSBURG, RUSSIA - JANUARY 31, 2018: A red supermoon over the tower of the Lakhta Center, which is under construction in Primorsky District of St Petersburg. Peter Kovalev/TASS (Photo by Peter Kovalev\TASS via Getty Images)
YUZHNO-SAKHALINSK, RUSSIA - JANUARY 31, 2018: A supermoon rises over trees in the town of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk on Sakhalin Island in Russia's Far East. Sergei Krasnoukhov/TASS (Photo by Sergei Krasnoukhov\TASS via Getty Images)
ISTANBUL, TURKEY - JANUARY 30: A bird flies as Full moon rises over Istanbul, Turkey on January 30, 2018. (Photo by Sebnem Coskun/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
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In the long-accepted explanation of lunar formation, the collision between Earth and the Mars-sized object, known as Theia, ejected part of Earth's mantle — essentially molten rock and metal — and left debris orbiting our planet. Over time, the bits of debris collided and clumped together to form the moon.

But when the researchers used powerful computers to simulate this process, they ran into the same problem that has long vexed scientists examining the Theia theory: It was hard to see how the collision and the ensuing clumping of debris could explain the moon's unique chemistry, said study co-author Dr. Sarah Stewart, a professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at the University of California, Davis.

If the moon formed from debris created by the Theia impact, the chemical composition of the moon should differ from that of Earth. But that's not the case. "The moon has a very distinctive composition," Lock said. "If you look at major rock-forming elements, the moon looks exactly the same as the Earth."

But if the moon formed within a vaporized Earth, that could account for the similarities in the celestial bodies' chemical compositions.

Stewart said the new theory comes after a decade of "intense rethinking" of the lunar formation process, adding that more work needs to be done. "We know of things that need further clarification," she said. "We published this to say, here's how we can do this a new way, and here's why we think it could be pointing us in a new direction, but we haven't tied off all the loose ends yet."

This hasn't stopped the theory from raising a few eyebrows.

Dr. Paul Warren, a University of California, Los Angeles geophysicist who has done extensive work on lunar formation but was not involved with the new study, called the new theory innovative but said it had limitations. Chief among them, he said, is that it relies on an impact of almost unimaginable scale.

"That requires either one stupendously energetic impact, or multiple very closely sequenced giant impacts," Warren told NBC News MACH in an email. "While that certainly appears plausible, at this early stage of our rapidly increasing knowledge of such things, I believe some other experts on planet accretion would not be quite so sanguine about it."

But the new theory at least addresses the chemical composition problem — what scientists in the field call "the isotope crisis of moon formation." So said Dr. Andreas Pack, an isotope geochemist at the University of Göttingen in Germany, who, like Warren, was not involved in the new research. "It's a very complicated model, and the more complicated a model is, the easier it is to tune the model so that it explains everything," Pack said.

The new study was published Feb. 28 in the Journal of Geophysical Research - Planets.

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