You’ve Never Seen the Phases of the Moon from This Perspective: The Far Side

Sometimes, it seems to be a cosmic misfortune that we only get to view the universe from a singular vantage point.

Take the example of our single natural satellite. As the Moon waxes and wanes through its cycle of phases,  we see the familiar face of the lunar nearside. This holds true from the day we’re born until the day we die. The Romans and Paleolithic man saw that same face, and until less than a century ago, it was anyone’s guess as to just what was on the other side.

Enter the Space Age and the possibility to finally get a peek at the universe from different perspective via our robotic ambassadors. This week, the folks over at NASA’s Scientific Visualization Studio released a unique video simulation that utilized data from NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter to give us a view unseen from Earth. This perspective shows just what the phases of the Moon would look like from the vantage point of the lunar farside:

You can see the Moon going through the synodic 29.5 day period a familiar phases, albeit with an unfamiliar face. Note that the Sun zips by, as the lunar farside wanes towards New. And in the background, the Earth can be seen, presenting an identical phase and tracing out a lazy figure eight as it appears and disappears behind the lunar limb.

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The lunar nearside: A familiar view. Credit: Stephen Rahn.

What’s with the lunar-planetary game of peek-a-boo? Well, the point of view for the video assumes that your looking at down at the lunar farside from a stationary point above the Moon. Note that the disk of the Moon stays fixed in place. The Moon actually ‘rocks’ or nods back and forth and side-to-side in motions referred to as libration and nutation, and you’re seeing these expressed via the motion of the Earth in the video.  This assures that we actually get a peek over the lunar limb and see a foreshadowed extra bit of the lunar farside, with grand 59% of the lunar surface visible from the Earth. Such is the wacky motion of our Moon, which gave early astronomers an excellent crash course in celestial mechanics 101.

Now, to dispel some commonly overheard lunar myths:

Myth #1: The moon doesn’t rotate. Yes, it’s tidally locked from our perspective, meaning that it keeps one face turned Earthward. But it does turn on its axis in lockstep as it does so once every 27.3 days, known as a sidereal month.

Myth #2:  The Farside vs. the Darkside. (Cue Pink Floyd) We do in fact see the dark or nighttime side of the Moon just as much as the daytime side. Despite popular culture, the farside is only synonymous with the darkside of the Moon during Full phase.

Humanity got its first glimpse of the lunar farside in 1959, when the Soviet Union’s Luna 3 spacecraft looked back as it flew past the Moon and beamed us the first blurry image. The Russians got there first, which is why the lunar farside now possesses names for features such as the “Mare Moscoviense”.

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Our evolving view of the lunar farside over 60 years… Credit: NASA/LRO.

Think we’ve explored the Moon? Thus far, no mission – crewed or otherwise – has landed on the lunar farside. The Apollo missions were restricted to nearside landing sites at low latitudes with direct line of sight communication with the Earth. The same goes for the lunar poles: the Moon is still a place begging for further exploration.

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China’s Chang’e 5 T1 pathfinder mission looks back at the Earth and the lunar farside. Credit: Xinhua/SASTIND.

Why go to the lunar farside? Well, it would be a great place to do some radio astronomy, as you have the bulk of the Moon behind you to shield your sensitive searches from the now radio noisy Earth. Sure, the dilemmas of living on the lunar farside might forever outweigh the benefits, and abrasive lunar dust will definitely be a challenge to lunar living… perhaps an orbiting radio astronomy observatory in a Lissajous orbit at the L2 point would be a better bet?

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An artist’s conception of LRO in lunar orbit. Credit: NASA/LRO.

And exploration of the Moon continues. Earlier this week, the LRO team released a finding suggesting that surface hydrogen may be more abundant on the poleward facing slopes of craters that litter the lunar south pole region. Locating caches of lunar ice in permanently shadowed craters will be key to a ‘living off of the land’ approach for future lunar colonists… and then there’s the idea to harvest helium-3 for nuclear fusion (remember the movie Moon?) that’s still science fiction… for now.

Perhaps the Moonbase Alpha of Space: 1999 never came to pass… but there’s always 2029!

What’s On The Far Side Of The Moon?

You probably know we only see one side of the Moon from the Earth. But for the majority of human history, we had no idea what the far side looked like.

Billions of years ago, our Moon was formed when a Mars-sized object smashed into the Earth, spinning out a ring of debris. This debris collected into the Moon we know today. It started out rotating from our perspective, but the Earth’s gravity slowed it down until its rotation became locked with the Earth’s, keeping one half forever hidden from our view.

It wasn’t until the space age that humans finally got a chance to see what’s on the other side. The first spacecraft to image the far side of the Moon was the Soviet Luna 3 probe in 1959, which returned 18 usable images to scientists. And then in 1965, the Soviet Zond 3 transmitted another 25 pictures of higher quality that gave much more detail of the surface. The first humans to actually see the far side with their own eyes, were the crew of Apollo 8, who did a flyover in 1968.

We now have high resolution cameras imaging every square meter, even the far side. And here’s the amazing surprise….

You would think that the far side of the Moon would look like the near side, but check out the two hemispheres…They’re totally different.

The near side of the has huge regions of ancient lava flows, called maria. While the far side is almost entirely covered in crater impacts. Planetary geologists aren’t sure, but it’s possible that the Earth used to have two Moons.

Billions of years ago, the second, smaller moon crashed into the far side of the Moon, covering up the darker maria regions.

And just to clarify things with Pink Floyd’s reference to the “Dark Side of the Moon”… Except for the occasional lunar eclipse, half of the Moon is always in darkness and half is always illuminated. But that illuminated half changes as the Moon orbits around us.

High resolution photo map of the moon's far side imaged by NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. Mare Moscoviense lies at upper left and Tsiolkovsky at lower left. Click for a hi res image. Credit: NASA
High resolution photo map of the moon’s far side imaged by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. Credit: NASA

Just like half of the Earth is always in darkness, and half of every other large object in the Solar System. There’s no permanent “dark side” of the Moon. The side facing towards the Sun is lit up, and the side facing away is in shadows.

There are, however, some spots on the Moon which are in eternal darkness. There are craters at the north and south poles deep enough that the light from the Sun never illuminates their floors. In these places, It’s possible that there are reserves of ice that future space colonies could use for their supplies of water, air, and even rocket fuel.

Pink Floyd was right if you’re talking radio waves instead of visible light. The far side of the Moon is naturally shielded from the Earth’s radio transmissions, so it makes an ideal spot to locate a sensitive radio observatory.

I’ll see you in the permanently shadowed craters of the Moon.