Dear Readers, my subject this week is not within my half-mile ‘territory’, but out in the darkness of space. However, it always moves me to think that when the moon is full here in East Finchley, it will also be full in Australia and Canada, in Russia and Japan. And this week, it has been a tiny bit closer to us all than usual, turning it into a ‘supermoon’.
The moon is in an elliptical orbit around the earth, and its actual distance from us varies from 222,000 to 252,000 miles. When it is closest to us, and combined with a full moon, the moon is up to 14% larger and 30% brighter than when it is furthest away. This latter condition is known as a ‘micromoon’, but you don’t hear much in the newspapers about that! If you have clear conditions, pop out to have a look at the moon while it’s still almost full, as the next full supermoon won’t be until 3rd December next year, and the moon won’t be as close to us as it currently is until 2034. For anyone who would like to track what’s ‘going on’ with the moon, I recommend the ‘moon phases’ page here. You can enter your city to get local information, although, as I said earlier, the moon is remarkably constant, showing the same face to us all.
‘Look at the moon!’ I yelled, pointing with a trembling finger.
The lady, to her credit, didn’t bat me off with a rolled newspaper.
‘Ah, that explains it’, she said. ‘I’ve been feeling as batty as a fruitcake all day’.
And indeed, many people believe that the moon affects their moods and their sleep patterns (the word ‘lunatic’ comes from this theory). As the pull of the moon’s tidal effect can be found in a simple puddle, it’s no wonder to me that human beings, who are mostly water after all, are also dragged and released as the moon orbits around our planet. Most scientific studies of the ‘lunar effect’ have shown no correlation between the phases of the moon and human behaviour per se, but there are studies that show that sleep quality is affected adversely by the full moon whether or not the participants can see it, or know about it. So, there are still mysteries here to be investigated.
As the moon rises, it loses its orange colour and turns white. This is because when the moon is close to the horizon, the sun’s light, which is reflected from the moon, has to pass through a lot of the earth’s atmosphere. As we know, light, although it appears white, is made up of red, blue and green light, and each colour has different wavelengths. The atmosphere ‘scatters’ the blue and green rays, making the moon appear red or orange (a similar effect occurs as the sun sinks below the horizon during a sunset). As the moon rises, its light doesn’t have to pass through such a thick ‘slice’ of the atmosphere, and so it appears silver or white.
The reflected light was so strong that it took quite a lot of fiddling around to get my camera set. At one point I was braced against the window sill in our loft and wondering how long an exposure I could risk.
What a strange and beautiful thing the moon is. It bears the scars of its volcanic past, and of the many, many meteorites that have hit it, and yet it seems serene as it sails on overhead. For anyone who would like to know where the Sea of Tranquillity, or (maybe more appropriately for 2016) the Sea of Crises is, I would like to share the graphic below, courtesy of Peter Freeman, with the photo of the moon by Glen Rivera. Full credit is at the end of this piece.
The various ‘seas’, or ‘mare’, were once thought to be full of water. In fact, they were formed by ancient lava streaming from the volcanoes that were active 3.5 billion years ago. The paler patches are known as the ‘highlands’. Then there are the impact craters, many of them named after astronomers. It is estimated that there were over 300,000 asteroid impacts resulting in craters more than 1km wide on the near side of the moon alone. Most of these occurred during the Late Heavy Bombardment period, about 4.1 to 3.8 billion years ago, a time when the planets of the inner solar system had formed but when there was still plenty of debris flying about. What a terrifying time this would have been, had there been anything sentient around to see it.
What, though, is on the other side of the moon, the secret face that we never see?
What an unfamiliar view this is. There are no seas of volcanic lava, no highlands, just a pockmarked jumble of craters. It’s thought that the nearside of the moon was the most volcanically active because of a concentration of heat-producing elements on this side. Although we never see this side of the moon, it isn’t actually ‘dark’ – it is illuminated by the sun once a day. For some unfathomable reason, this rather cheers me up. But there is one place on the moon that never receives sunlight.
The dark areas to the right of the centre of the photograph form part of the South Pole/Aitken crater, the largest, oldest and deepest crater on the moon, and one of the biggest impacts so far recorded in the whole solar system. Areas of the crater are in perpetual darkness, and the temperature at the bottom has been measured at -397 degrees Fahrenheit, the coldest temperature so far recorded by any probe, and colder even than poor old Pluto.
The science of the moon fascinates me, and yet there is something about it that appeals to a much more instinctive side of my nature. On a business trip to Rotterdam many years ago, I was woken up by what I thought was a floodlight outside my hotel window. I got up, flung back the curtains and came face to face with the biggest, brightest moon that I’ve ever seen, before or since. Maybe it was the surprise, or something deeper, but I found myself sinking to me knees on the carpet, overwhelmed. The moonlight poured through the window and I felt as if I was bathing in it. I looked at my hands and arms, and they were silver. And I stayed there, silent, until the moon passed below the buildings beyond and disappeared, and went back to bed, and when I woke in the morning it felt like a dream, except that the curtains were still pulled open. The moon has inspired awe and reverence for as long as there have been creatures to feel such things. It felt strange but right to be honouring such a tradition.
Photo One (map of the moon) – By Peter FreimanCmgleeBackground photograph by Gregory H. Revera – Remake of File:FullMoon2010.jpgBitmap from File:FullMoon2010.jpgOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14580532
Photo Two – Far side of the moon – By NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University – http://wms.lroc.asu.edu/lroc_browse/view/WAC_GL180 (see also http://photojournal.jpl.nasa.gov/catalog/PIA14021), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14842928
Photo Three (south pole of the moon) – By NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University – http://wms.lroc.asu.edu/lroc_browse/view/SP_Mosaic (see also http://photojournal.jpl.nasa.gov/catalog/PIA13523), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31697327
All other photos and blog content free to use and share non-commercially, but please attribute and link back to the blog, thank you!