“By the Light of the Silvery Moon” goes the song. But the color and appearance of the Moon depends upon the particular set of eyes we use to see it. Human vision is restricted to a narrow slice of the electromagnetic spectrum called visible light.
With colors ranging from sumptuous violet to blazing red and everything in between, the diversity of the visible spectrum provides enough hues for any crayon color a child might imagine. But as expansive as the visual world’s palette is, it’s not nearly enough to please astronomers’ retinal appetites.
Since the discovery of infrared light by William Herschel in 1800 we’ve been unshuttering one electromagnetic window after another. We build telescopes, great parabolic dishes and other specialized instruments to extend the range of human sight. Not even the atmosphere gets in our way. It allows only visible light, a small amount of infrared and ultraviolet and selective slices of the radio spectrum to pass through to the ground. X-rays, gamma rays and much else is absorbed and completely invisible.
To peer into these rarified realms, we’ve lofting air balloons and then rockets and telescopes into orbit or simply dreamed up the appropriate instrument to detect them. Karl Jansky’s homebuilt radio telescope cupped the first radio waves from the Milky Way in the early 1930s; by the 1940s sounding rockets shot to the edge of space detected the high-frequency sizzle of X-rays. Each color of light, even the invisible “colors”, show us a new face on a familiar astronomical object or reveal things otherwise invisible to our eyes.
So what new things can we learn about the Moon with our contemporary color vision?
Radio: Made using NRAO’s 140-ft telescope in Green Bank, West Virginia. Blues and greens represent colder areas of the moon and reds are warmer regions. The left half of Moon was facing the Sun at the time of the observation. The sunlit Moon appear brighter than the shadowed portion because it radiates more heat (infrared light) and radio waves.
Submillimeter: Taken using the SCUBA camera on the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope in Hawaii. Submillimeter radiation lies between far infrared and microwaves. The Moon appears brighter on one side because it’s being heated by Sun in that direction. The glow comes from submillimeter light radiated by the Moon itself. No matter the phase in visual light, both the submillimeter and radio images always appear full because the Moon radiates at least some light at these wavelengths whether the Sun strikes it or not.
Mid-infrared: This image of the Full Moon was taken by the Spirit-III instrument on the Midcourse Space Experiment (MSX) at totality during a 1996 lunar eclipse. Once again, we see the Moon emitting light with the brightest areas the warmest and coolest regions darkest. Many craters look like bright dots speckling the lunar disk, but the most prominent is brilliant Tycho near the bottom. Research shows that young, rock-rich surfaces, such as recent impact craters, should heat up and glow more brightly in infrared than older, dust-covered regions and craters. Tycho is one of the Moon’s youngest craters with an age of just 109 million years.
Near-infrared: This color-coded picture was snapped just beyond the visible deep red by NASA’s Galileo spacecraft during its 1992 Earth-Moon flyby en route to Jupiter. It shows absorptions due to different minerals in the Moon’s crust. Blue areas indicate areas richer in iron-bearing silicate materials that contain the minerals pyroxene and olivine. Yellow indicates less absorption due to different mineral mixes.
Visible light: Unlike the other wavelengths we’ve explored so far, we see the Moon not by the light it radiates but by the light it reflects from the Sun.
The iron-rich composition of the lavas that formed the lunar “seas” give them a darker color compared to the ancient lunar highlands, which are composed mostly of a lighter volcanic rock called anorthosite.
Ultraviolet: Similar to the view in visible light but with a lower resolution. The brightest areas probably correspond to regions where the most recent resurfacing due to impacts has occurred. Once again, the bright rayed crater Tycho stands out in this regard. The photo was made with the Ultraviolet Imaging Telescope flown aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour in March 1995.
X-ray: The Moon, being a relatively peaceful and inactive celestial body, emits very little x-ray light, a form of radiation normally associated with highly energetic and explosive phenomena like black holes. This image was made by the orbiting ROSAT Observatory on June 29, 1990 and shows a bright hemisphere lit by oxygen, magnesium, aluminum and silicon atoms fluorescing in x-rays emitted by the Sun. The speckled sky records the “noise” of distant background X-ray sources, while the dark half of the Moon has a hint of illumination from Earth’s outermost atmosphere or geocorona that envelops the ROSAT observatory.
Gamma rays: Perhaps the most amazing image of all. If you could see the sky in gamma rays the Moon would be far brighter than the Sun as this dazzling image attempts to show. It was taken by the Energetic Gamma Ray Experiment Telescope (EGRET). High-energy particles (mostly protons) from deep space called cosmic rays constantly bombard the Moon’s surface, stimulating the atoms in its crust to emit gamma rays. These create a unique high-energy form of “moonglow”.
Astronomy in the 21st century is like having a complete piano keyboard on which to play compared to barely an octave a century ago. The Moon is more fascinating than ever for it.