ASTRONOMY: Don’t forget the Moon!

David Cater/Star-Gazing
Lunar mountains can be seen in this image of the moon.
David Cater/Star-Gazing Lunar mountains can be seen in this image of the moon.

As an amateur astronomer, it is easy for me to neglect the Moon. Over the last 50+ years I have been observing phenomena in the night sky, I have seen the Moon so many times I can get bored with it. But...I don't want to forget the Moon -- the Moon has taken a great beating over the eons and saved the Earth from many a severe meteor impact. If you look at the Moon even in a small telescope, you will see thousands of ancient crater strikes. Imagine if all of the meteors that created these craters on the Moon had directly struck the Earth! The topography of the Earth would be very different from what we see today.

The Earth's atmosphere is the other great barrier that has spared the Earth from being constantly blasted by big, flying rocks from outer space. Most meteors we see today burn out high in the Earth's atmosphere, producing no threat to the Earth. However, particularly in very ancient times, the Moon has shielded Earth from many of the constant meteor strikes the Moon has endured.

I recommend viewing the Moon. Binoculars or a small telescope will reveal not only thousands of craters, such instruments can show you the extensive congealed lava beds covering much of the Moon's surface. The material outpoured from ancient volcanoes is darker than the whiter parts you can so easily see with the naked eye. As the material flowed onto the surface of the Moon, it cooled and made a dark surface cover that is dark enough so that the ancient Romans thought these dark areas were seas on the Moon -- hence the Latin name 'Maria' seas.

Many people don't realize that the Moon also has mountains and valleys -- not quite like those on Earth -- but certainly lunar versions of mountains and valleys. These features are often sharper-edged than those of Earth because there is no atmosphere on the Moon and only very small traces of ice -- if any at all. Thus, with no wind or flowing water, there is nothing to erode the sharp edges of lunar mountains and craters.

I have included an image of the Moon I made about a month ago with an 8-inch telescope and a digital camera. It shows the Lunar Appenines and several large craters, including the large oval crater Plato. Notice that its floor is quite smooth. This is because Plato's floor has been smoothed by lava flow a very long time ago.

The mountains and craters in this image were sharply outlined because the Sun was just rising on the lunar surface, producing long shadows and strong relief. In some places, these mountains are more than 20,000 feet high! Plato is about 68 miles across.

Anyone with normal eyesight can enjoy the Moon. Not only is it astronomically interesting, it can be very picturesque just as it rises with an old gnarled tree in the foreground.