Surface of the Moon

Earth's Moon
Earth's Moon

[/caption]Despite the close proximity between the Earth and the Moon, there’s a big difference between the surface of the Moon and of Earth’s. Much of the difference between the two celestial bodies is caused by the absence of the following attributes on the Moon: an atmosphere, bodies of water, and plate tectonics.

Since the Earth’s Moon doesn’t have a significant atmosphere, nothing can stop even the smallest meteoroids from striking its surface. As a result, the lunar surface is heavily cratered. As a matter of fact, tiny craters are quite common even on lunar rocks. This was observed on the Moon rocks brought home by the Apollo missions.

By contrast, small meteoroids that pass through the Earth’s atmosphere are easily vaporized and hence are not able to form craters on the land below.

The absence of liquid water on its surface has allowed the Moon to preserve much of its ancient geological features. Here on Earth, erosion can alter and cover formations over time. Plate tectonics, which is also absent on the Moon, is another big factor that makes the terrain of the two celestial bodies different.

Here on Earth, plate tectonics cause volcanic activities, earthquakes, and sea floor spreading.

Due to the lack of water and atmosphere, the lunar regolith (also called “lunar soil”) is noticeably dry and devoid of air. It also does not contain anything organic. The regolith comes from meteor impacts that has plagued the Moon since its inception.

Impact crater sizes on the lunar surface range from the tiny holes that mark lunar rocks to the really big ones like the South Pole Aitken Basin that has a diameter of approximately 2,500 km. Younger craters are superimposed over older ones. This characteristic is used by scientists to determine the relative ages of impact craters.

Basically, it has been observed that the size of impact craters on the surface of the Moon have decreased over time.

Other prominent geological features found on the surface of the Moon include maria, rilles, domes, wrinkle ridges, and grabens.

The maria, which comprise about one-third of the Moon’s near side, are made up of flows of basaltic lava formed from volcanic activities that occurred in the younger years of the Moon. They were once mistaken for seas on the surface of the Moon, hence the name. Maria is the Latin word for seas. The near side refers to the side of the Moon that is constantly facing Earth.

Here’s a list of popular craters on Earth from Universe Today.

Come October 9, 2009, LCROSS will perform a lunar impact. Find out which crater NASA has chosen for the impact. If you want to know more about the largest crater on the Moon, NASA’s got the right stuff.
There are some interesting episodes from Astronomy Cast that we’d like to recommend:
The Source of Atmospheres, the Vanishing Moon, and a Glow After Sunset
The Moon, Part 1


What is a Joule?

When we raise an apple up to a height of one meter, we perform approximately one joule of work. So what is a joule?

Joule is the unit of energy used by the International Standard of Units (SI). It is defined as the amount of work done on a body by a one Newton force that moves the body over a distance of one meter. Wait a minute … is it a unit of energy or a unit of work?

Actually, it is a unit of both because the two are interrelated. Energy is just the ability of a body to do work. Conversely, work done on a body changes the energy of the body. Let’s go back to the apple example mentioned earlier to elaborate.

An apple is a favorite example to illustrate a one joule of work when using the definition given earlier (i.e., the amount of work done ….) because an apple weighs approximately one Newton. Thus, you’d have to exert a one Newton upward force to counteract its one Newton weight. Once you’ve lifted it up to a height of one meter, you would have performed one joule of work on it.

Now, how does energy fit into the picture? As you perform work on the apple, the energy of the apple (in this case, its potential energy) changes. At the top, the apple would have gained about one joule of potential energy.

Also, when the apple is one meter above its original position, say the floor, gravity would have gained the ability to do work on it. This ability, when measured in joules, is equivalent to one joule.

Meaning, when you release the apple, the force of gravity, which is simply just the weight of the body and equivalent to one Newton, would be able to perform one joule of work on it when the apple drops down from a height of one meter.

Mathematically, 1 joule = 1 Newton ⋅ meter. However, writing it as Newton ⋅ meter is discouraged since it can be easily confused with the unit of torque.

Particle physics experiments deal with large amounts of energies. That is why it is also known as high energy physics. If you liked our answer to the question, “What is a Joule?”, you might want to read the following articles from Universe Today:

Rare Binary Pulsars Provide High Energy Physics Lab
New Particle Throws Monkeywrench in Particle Physics
Physics World also has some more:
Particle physics: the next generation
To the LHC and beyond
Tired eyes? Let your ears help you learn for a change. Here are some episodes from Astronomy Cast that just might suit your taste:
The Large Hadron Collider and the Search for the Higgs-Boson

University of Wisconsin
University of Virginia

What Is Static Electricity?

Fine Structure Constant

[/caption]Wonder why you sometimes get zapped when touching a doorknob especially during winter? People will tell you it’s a simple case of static electricity. But what is static electricity?

In some texts, static electricity is a term supposedly used for electricity that does not deal with moving charges. Actually, there is movement of charges. In fact, when you get zapped, charges are actually moving between your fingers and the doorknob. However, the movement is only brief compared to the current in a closed circuit.

So how do stationary charges allow people to get zapped? To understand this phenomenon, try to recall the particles that make up an atom. That’s right, the protons, neutrons, and electrons.

Of the three, electrons are easily removed from an atom since the forces that bind them to an atom are weaker than those that hold the neutrons and protons together in the atoms’ nuclei.

Now, there are some materials that easily lose their electrons compared to others. We’ve included a list below ranking some materials based on their ability to lose electrons. The one at the top has a greater tendency to lose electrons while the one at the bottom has the least.

  • human hands
  • glass
  • nylon
  • fur
  • silk
  • aluminum
  • steel
  • hard rubber
  • vinyl(PVC)
  • Teflon

Such a list is known as a triboelectric series. A true triboelectric series would have positives and negatives but we won’t go into that here.

Therefore, based on the list, if you rubbed a glass rod with a silk cloth, it is the glass rod that would lose electrons to the cloth. When this happens, the glass rod becomes positively charged, while the silk cloth (having gained excess electrons) becomes negatively charged.

Then when you draw the glass rod close to small bits of paper, the positively charged glass rod repels the electrons in the paper (pushing them to one side in the paper) and attracting the positive side. This allows the bits of paper to stick to the glass rod.

In the case of people getting zapped, they usually gain electrons when they walk across a carpeted floor. The interaction is between the carpet and the soles of their shoes but the overall charge of their bodies get affected. You can imagine them as walking negatively-charged bodies.

So, when they touch a metal door knob, the excess electrons readily leap from their hands to the metal knob and they get zapped.

Actually, static electricity is a rather lengthy physics topic that covers more than just the zapping phenomena. It includes discussions on induction, conduction, Coulomb’s Law, and electric fields, to mention a few. However, when a regular person asks, “what is static electricity?”, he most likely wants you to explain about the painful sensation he experiences upon touching a door knob.

Coulomb’s Law deals with charges. Universe Today has articles talking about the charge of the proton and the charge of the electron.

NASA also has some related stuff. Check out the following articles:
Killer Electrons

Here are two episodes at Astronomy Cast that you might want to check out as well:
The Search for Dark Matter

How Stuff Works
The Physics Classroom

What Is Sound?

What is Sound

[/caption]Light and sound are both waves. However, the former can travel through a vacuum while the latter cannot. So what is sound and how does it propagate as a wave?

Sound is actually a pressure wave. When an object vibrates, it creates a mechanical disturbance in the medium in which it is directly adjacent to. Usually, the medium is air. The medium then carries the disturbance in the form of oscillating and propagating pressure waves.

The frequency of the waves are dependent on the frequency of the vibrating source. If the frequency of the vibrating source is high, then the sound wave will also have a high frequency. The sounds that we hear, from the voice of the person right next to you, to the music coming from your iPod earphones, to the crashing noise of shattered glass, all come from a vibrating source.

As the sound waves propagate through a medium, the pressure at a localized region in the medium alternates between compressions and rarefactions (or decompressions). Thus, if at one instant, a region in the medium experiences compression, the regions adjacent to it along the line of propagation are expected to be experiencing rarefactions.

Then as time progresses, the region in question undergoes a rarefaction while those adjacent to it undergo compressions. Therefore, if no medium exists, then the compressions and rarefactions cannot occur.

Now, how does one hear sounds? Remember how a source has to vibrate to produce a sound wave, and how a vibrating medium (e.g. air) has to exist to allow the sound wave to propagate? In the same manner, the receiver of the sound has to have something that can vibrate in order to ‘interpret’ the sound carried by the vibrating medium.

In the case of our ears, our eardrums serve as the receivers. When the vibrating air reaches our eardrums, it causes our eardrums to vibrate as well. The eardrums then transmit these vibrations to tiny bones in the middle ear, and so on until they reach the inner ear where the oscillating pressures are converted into electrical signals and sent to the brain.

Our ears are sensitive to vibrations between 20 to 20,000 Hz. Normally, frequencies that are higher or lower than the range provided cannot be processed by our auditory system. Young kids however, are able to hear slightly higher frequencies. That means, the range over which we are sensitive to diminishes as we grow older.

We have some articles in Universe Today that are related to sound. Here are two of them:

  • Hypersonic
  • Supersonic

Speed of sound references, brought to you by NASA. Here are the links:

Tired eyes? Let your ears help you learn for a change. Here are some episodes from Astronomy Cast that just might suit your taste:

Indiana University

What Is A Moon?

Full Moon
Full Moon

Before the invention of the telescope in the early 1600’s, man just knew of the Moon — a round, mysterious astronomical object that people would gaze up to in the night sky. As time progressed however, astronomers discovered that the moon isn’t exactly unique to earthlings, and other planets had their own moons. So exactly what is a moon?

A moon is defined to be a celestial body that makes an orbit around a planet, including the eight major planets, dwarf planets, and minor planets. A moon may also be referred to as a natural satellite, although to differentiate it from other astronomical bodies orbiting another body, e.g. a planet orbiting a star, the term moon is used exclusively to make a reference to a planet’s natural satellite.

The first moons to be discovered outside of the Earth’s moon were the Galilean moons of Jupiter, named after astronomer and discoverer Galileo Galilei. The moons Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto are Jupiter’s largest and only the first four to be revealed, as to date, the planet has 63 moons.

Other than the four Galilean moons, Saturn’s Titan and Neptune’s Triton are two other moons which are comparable in size to the Earth’s Moon. In fact, these seven moons are the largest natural satellites in the solar system, measuring more than 3,000 kilometers in diameter. Only the inner planets Mercury and Venus have no moons.

An interesting fact about some of the solar system’s largest moons that most people may not be aware of is that a few of them are geologically active. While we may not see the Moon spewing lava or displaying any evidence of tectonic activity, Jupiter’s Io and Europa, Saturn’s Titan and Enceladus, and Neptune’s Triton have been found to be volcanically active bodies.

If the moon count had a grand total of just one in the olden times, that number has ballooned to 336 as of July 2009, with 168 moons orbiting the six planets, while the rest are moons of dwarf planets, asteroids moons, and natural satellites of Trans-Neptunian objects.

As more and more discoveries are made however, astronomers may find it more difficult to put a really defining line on what can or what can’t be classified as a moon. For instance, can you consider a 10-inch rock that’s orbiting Jupiter a moon? If yes, then there could be thousands or even millions of moons out there. If not, then where do you draw the line? Obviously, even the size of an “official” moon is still up for debate, so other than the simple definition of it being a natural satellite of a planet, there really is no clear cut answer to the question, “What is a moon?”.

Here in Universe Today, we have a nice collection of articles that explain why the Moon landings could not have been faked. Here are some of them:

Moon Rocks – Discusses how the Moon rocks are one of the most tangible objects that prove the landings took place.

Moon Landing Hoax – An explanation that counters some of the points raised by skeptics

Apollo 11 Hoax – another point for point discussion by Jerry Coffey

TV – Alert: Mythbusters and the Moon Hoax Myth – a teaser for the Mythbusters episode featuring the so-called hoax. You’ll find the comments below that article equally interesting, by the way.

Here’s an article from NASA that debunks the hoax theory using the Moon rock arguments. Another article about Moon rocks from the same site.

Episodes about the moon from Astronomy Cast. Lend us your ears!

Shooting Lasers at the Moon and Losing Contact with Rovers
The Moon Part I

NASA Solar System Exploration: Moons of Jupiter
NASA Solar System Exploration: Moons

Radiation from the Sun

Extreme Ultraviolet Sun
Extreme Ultraviolet Sun

[/caption]Radiation from the Sun, which is more popularly known as sunlight, is a mixture of electromagnetic waves ranging from infrared (IR) to ultraviolet rays (UV). It of course includes visible light, which is in between IR and UV in the electromagnetic spectrum.

All electromagnetic waves (EM) travel at a speed of approximately 3.0 x 10 8 m/s in vacuum. Although space is not a perfect vacuum, as it is really composed of low-density particles, EM waves, neutrinos, and magnetic fields, it can certainly be approximated as such.

Now, since the average distance between the Earth and the Sun over one Earth orbit is one AU (about 150,000,000,000 m), then it will take about 8 minutes for radiation from the Sun to get to Earth.

Actually, the Sun does not only produce IR, visible light, and UV. Fusion in the core actually gives off high energy gamma rays. However, as the gamma ray photons make their arduous journey to the surface of the Sun, they are continuously absorbed by the solar plasma and re-emitted to lower frequencies. By the time they get to the surface, their frequencies are mostly only within the IR/visible light/UV spectrum.

During solar flares, the Sun also emits X-rays. X-ray radiation from the Sun was first observed by T. Burnight during a V-2 rocket flight. This was later confirmed by Japan’s Yohkoh, a satellite launched in 1991.

When electromagnetic radiation from the Sun strikes the Earth’s atmosphere, some of it is absorbed while the rest proceed to the Earth’s surface. In particular, UV is absorbed by the ozone layer and re-emitted as heat, eventually heating up the stratosphere. Some of this heat is re-radiated to outer space while some is sent to the Earth’s surface.

In the meantime, the electromagnetic radiation that wasn’t absorbed by the atmosphere proceeds to the Earth’s surface and heats it up. Some of this heat stays there while the rest is re-emitted. Upon reaching the atmosphere, part of it gets absorbed and part of it passes through. Naturally, the ones that get absorbed add to the heat already there.

The presence of greenhouse gases make the atmosphere absorb more heat, reducing the fraction of outbound EM waves that pass through. Known as the greenhouse effect, this is the reason why heat can build up some more.

The Earth is not the only planet that experiences the greenhouse effect. Read about the greenhouse effect taking place in Venus here in Universe Today. We’ve also got an interesting article that talks about a real greenhouse on the Moon by 2014.

Here’s a simplified explanation of the greenhouse effect on the EPA’s website. There’s also NASA’s Climate Change page.

Relax and listen to some interesting episodes at Astronomy Cast. Want to know more aboutUltraviolet Astronomy? How different is it from Optical Astronomy?

NASA Science: The Electromagnetic Spectrum
NASA Earth Observatory

Proxima Centauri

X-Ray image of Proxima Centauri. Image credit: Chandra

[/caption]As the nearest star from our Solar System, Proxima Centauri is a prime candidate for future interstellar travel and space colonization missions.

In the meantime, scientists are trying to determine whether this star has super Earths orbiting within its habitable zone. Habitable zones are regions around a star where planets are believed to receive just the right amount of heat. For instance, Earth is within the Sun’s habitable zone.

If we were slightly nearer, say on Venus’ orbit, the heat would have evaporated all our oceans. On the other hand, if we were slightly farther, the temperature would have been too cold to support life.

So far, searches in the neighborhood of Proxima Centauri have revealed nothing. Even companion stars or supermassive planets that may be accompanying the star have not yet been discovered (if they are ever there at all). Although the search continues, some scientists believe Proxima Centauri’s flares can be a big obstacle for life even inside the star’s habitable zone.

Proxima Centauri’s flares are believed to be caused by magnetic activity. When a flare occurs, the brightness of all electromagnetic waves emitted by the star increases. This includes radio waves as well as harmful X-rays. The most common flare stars are red dwarfs, just like Proxima Centauri.

Now, even if Proxima Centauri is the nearest star, it is still 4.2 light years away. That’s about 4 x 10 13 km. The spacecraft that would take the first explorers to that system would have to rely on a virtually unlimited supply of energy. Furthermore, sufficient shielding against cosmic radiation should be in place.

Proxima Centauri is smaller than our Sun with a mass of approximately 0.123 solar masses and a radius of only about 0.145 solar radii. Its interior is believed to be totally dependent on convection when it comes to transferring heat from the core to the exterior.

Discovered in 1915 by Robert Innes, the Director of the Union Observatory in Johannesburg, South Africa, the star was observed to have the same proper motion as Alpha Centauri. Further studies confirmed that it was in fact very close to Alpha Centauri. The current distance between the two is estimated to be about only 0.21 light years.

Here are some articles in Universe Today that talk about Proxima Centauri:

What is the nearest star to the Sun?

How far is the nearest star?

Can’t get enough of stars? Here’s Hubblesite’s News Releases about Stars, and here’s the stars and galaxies homepage..

We have recorded several episodes of Astronomy Cast about stars. Here are two that you might find helpful: Episode 12: Where Do Baby Stars Come From, and Episode 13: Where Do Stars Go When they Die?

Source: Wikipedia

Sea of Tranquility

Apollo 11 landed on the Moon on July 20, 1969.

The Sea of Tranquility is the landing site of Apollo 11, the mission that gave mankind its first ever walk on the Moon.

Walk? Yes, that’s right. The Sea of Tranquility is not actually a sea, so Neil Armstrong didn’t have to walk on water. In fact, there isn’t a single sea on the lunar surface. The Sea of Tranquility is actually a lunar mare. Now, although the plural of ‘mare’, ‘maria’, is a Latin word that means ‘seas’, these maria don’t have water in them.

Lunar maria were named as such because early astronomers mistook these areas as seas. You see, when you look at the Moon, particularly its near side (well, we don’t actually get to see the far side), i.e., the side which practically constantly stares at us at night, you’ll notice certain features that are darker than others.

Compare the Moon to a grey-scale model of the Earth, and you’ll easily mistake those dark patches for seas. By the way, in case you’ve been reading article titles (not the entire article) on this site lately, you might recall us mentioning water on the Moon. There’s water alright … underneath the surface, so even assuming that they’re plentiful, they don’t qualify as seas.

Let’s go back to our main topic. Called Mare Tranquillitatis in Latin, the Sea of Tranquility is found in the Tranquillitatis basin of the Moon and is composed of basalt. Maria are seen from Earth as relatively dark because the lighter colored areas are much elevated than them and hence are better illuminated by light coming from the Sun.

Whenever color is processed and extracted from multiple photographs, the Sea of Tranquility gives off a slightly bluish shade. This is believed to be caused by the relatively higher metal content in the area.

The actual landing site of Apollo 11’s lunar module is now named Statio Tranquillitatis or Tranquility Base. To the north of that specific area you’ll find three small craters aptly named Aldrin, Collins, and Armstrong, the privileged crew of Apollo 11.

The lunar module of Apollo 11 was not the only spacecraft to have landed on the Sea of Tranquility. There was also the Ranger 8 spacecraft … although “crash landed” is a more appropriate term. It wasn’t a failed mission though, since it was really meant to impact the lunar surface after taking pictures throughout its flight before striking the Moon.

Some people actually think the Apollo missions, particularly the lunar landings, were part of an elaborate hoax. Click on this link to read what the Japanese SELENE Lunar Mission discovered.

NASA has a huge collection of reliable links related to the Apollo missions.

Episodes about the moon from Astronomy Cast. Lend us your ears!

Shooting Lasers at the Moon and Losing Contact with Rovers
The Moon Part I

Gases In The Atmosphere

Atmosphere layers. Image credit: NASA
Atmosphere layers. Image credit: NASA

[/caption]There are different gases in the atmosphere. There’s nitrogen (the most abundant of them all), oxygen, and argon. There are of course a lot more but they’re no more than 1% of the entire atmosphere.

Among the minority are the greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide being the most prominent of them all. These gases are presently cast as harmful to the planet, being the primary cause of global warming. Of course, they’re only harmful because they’ve exceeded their ideal levels. Anything that comes in excess is not good, right?

At ideal levels, greenhouse gases play an important role in keeping our planet warm enough for us and other organisms to live comfortably. Unfortunately, the rapid rate of industrialization has caused greenhouse gases to accumulate, forming a layer too thick for infrared radiation (which originally came in from the Sun as solar radiation) to escape.

The different gases in the atmosphere actually make up five principal layers. Starting from the lowest layer, there’s the Troposphere, followed by Stratosphere, then the Mesosphere, then Thermosphere, and finally the Exosphere.

The peak of Mount Everest, high as it is, is still part of the Troposphere. The Stratosphere is the layer at which most weather balloons fly. The Mesosphere is where meteors mostly ignite. The Thermosphere is where the International Space Station orbits.

Since the Karman line (which serves as the boundary between the Earth’s immediate atmosphere and outer space) is found in the lower region of the Thermosphere, much of this layer of gases in the atmosphere is considered outer space. Finally, the exosphere, being the outermost layer, is where you can find the lightest gases: hydrogen and helium.

Many properties of the gases in the atmosphere are dependent on the altitude at which they are found. For instance, average density of these gases generally decrease as one rises to higher altitudes. As a result, the pressure (being due to the collisions of the particles that make up the gas) also decreases in the same manner.

Since the force of gravity pulls down on the masses of these gases, the heavier gases are typically found near the surface of the Earth while the lightest ones (e.g. hydrogen and helium) are found in higher altitudes. All these properties are just generalizations though. Temperature and fluid dynamics also influence these properties.

Want to learn more about the atmosphere and air pressure? You can read about both here in Universe Today.

Of course, you can find more info at NASA too. Follow these links:
Earth’s Atmosphere

Tired eyes? We recommend you let your ears do the work for a change. Here are some episodes from Astronomy Cast:
Plate Tectonics

How Big is Mars?


[/caption]Planet Mars’ Olympus Mons holds the record for the tallest known peak in the entire Solar System. Having a height three times taller than Mount Everest’s and a base wide enough to prevent an observer at the base from seeing the top, you would have expected Mars to be on a relatively big planet. But did you know that Mars is much smaller than Earth? So how big is Mars?

The radius of Mars is only about half that of the Earth’s radius; roughly 3,396 km at the equator and 3,376 km at the poles. For comparison, the earth’s equatorial radius is 6,378 km, while its polar radius is 6,357 km.

These radii give Mars a surface area roughly only 28.4% of Earth’s or 144,798,500 km2. The Pacific Ocean is even larger, with an area of roughly 169,200,000 km2.

The dimensions of Mars also gives it a volume approximately equal to 1.6318×1011 km2 and a mass approximately equal to 6.4185×1023 kg. That’s only about 15.1% and 10.7% that of the Earth’s, respectively.

Despite its noticeably smaller size than the Earth, Mars has more majestic geographical features.

For instance, there’s Valles Marineris, a 4,000 km-long and 7 km-deep canyon that spans about one-fifth of the entire planet’s circumference. It is so long that it’s even longer than the length of Europe. If you compare the Grand Canyon to it, Colorado’s pride and joy won’t look so grand anymore.

Want to know how long the Grand Canyon is? 446 km. That’s very long, yes. But that’s only a little over 10% the length of Valles Marineris.

That’s not the only large geographical feature on Mars. Ma’adim Vallis, is another canyon on Mars that’s larger then the Grand Canyon, with a length of 700 km. Then there’s an impact crater that’s been found to be larger than the combined surface area of the continents of Asia, Europe, and Australia.

Now that you know about these extremely majestic geographical features on Mars, the next time someone asks you, “How big is Mars?” you can tell them how it is much smaller than the Earth … but you can also add the salient features that make the Red Planet much more interesting when it comes to a discussion on sizes.

We’ve got more articles about the Planet Mars here on Universe Today. Click on that link or read about interesting facts about the Planet Mars.

There’s more from NASA: “Unmasking the Face on Mars” and “Mars Shoreline Tests: Massifs in the Cydonia Region”

Here are two episodes at Astronomy Cast that you might want to check out as well:
Stellar Roche Limits, Seeing Black Holes, and Water on Mars
The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence