Even though it is not the mind-blowing experience of a double rainbow all the way across the sky, seeing a rainbow on the Moon is pretty unusual. This curious image from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter shows a rainbow effect across 120 km of the lunar surface. And although water has recently been found on the Moon, water droplets have nothing to do with this rainbow. It comes from illumination conditions and viewing angles with having the Sun directly overhead of the LRO and the Moon.
“This image was acquired as the Sun was exactly overhead, allowing us to observe the ‘opposition surge,’said Brent Denevi, writing on the LRO Camera website. “This is a surge in brightness that occurs when the Sun is directly behind the observer because of two effects. First, there are no shadows seen on the surface, because each boulder and grain of soil’s shadow is hidden directly beneath it. Second, as the light reflects back to the observer it constructively interferes with itself.”
It is a very cool effect, giving the Moon a look having some unexpected color. Denevi said images that contain this type of effect are not just pretty, but useful, too. “They provide a huge new dataset for studying how light interacts with a particulate surface at different wavelengths,” he said. “Perhaps an esoteric-sounding field of study, but this data can help us understand the reflectance images and spectra we have of the Moon and other bodies throughout the Solar System.”