The origin of the moon: a timeline of discovery

The important landmarks in the history of science’s search to understand the origin of our familiar lunar companion

1795 –Pierre-Simon Laplace’s early explanation for the origins of the Solar System offers the first scientific theory of the Moon’s origins. This is known today as the co-accretion hypothesis.

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Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749-1827) © Getty Images

1878 – George Darwin puts forward his theory that the Moon split apart from a rapidly spinning young Earth, an idea derived from his mathematical research into tidal forces.  This becomes known as the fission theory.

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1952 –Harold Urey publishes the first serious arguments that the Moon may have originated elsewhere in the Solar System and been captured into orbit around Earth at a later stage.

Dr. Harold Urey points at a map of the moon © Getty Images

1975 –William K Hartmann and Donald R Davis suggest that a giant planetesimal impact on the early Earth could have provided the energy to eject material to form the Moon.

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1984 – A conference in Kona, Hawaii discusses the origins of the Moon and reaches consensus around the giant impact hypothesis, settling the debate. Many details are still to be resolved, however!