Moon Myths: Looking at Lunar Tall Tales

Turns out it’s all a big cosmic blame game.

Over the centuries, humans have attempted to link the phases of the Moon—especially the onset of the Full Moon—with terrestrial affairs. Heck, terms such as lunacy have even entered into the common lexicon, citing a supposed connection between insanity brought on by the Moon. And we’ve long heard anecdotal tales from police and late shift delivery room workers, who swear that everything, from crime rates to delivery room admissions increase around a Full Moon.

A 2004 study published in a nursing journal looking at admissions in a hospital in Barcelona, Spain cited a similar phenomenon.

So, what is this lunacy?

A recent study out of the UCLA caught our eye addressing this same issue. UCLA professor of planetary astronomy Jean-Luc Margot took a fresh look at the data from the 2004 study and found not only flaws in the correlation and data analysis in the 2004 study, but no link between the onset of the Full Moon and a spike in hospital admissions. We agree that looking at one hospital unit in Barcelona hardly constitutes a large data set. This also backs up a larger 40 year-old UCLA meta-study which found no correlation between the timing of births and the lunar cycle.

“The Moon is innocent,” Margot said, exonerating our celestial companion in a UCLA press release.

Blame our good friend and logical fallacy confirmation bias. Also known as the gambler’s fallacy, this occurs when we tend to count the hits but not the misses. When a topic such as a link between the Full Moon and a given activity comes up, we search back in our memory—which in and of itself is much more frangible than we’d like to think—and selectively remember all of the times that a Full Moon occurred when (pick your stated bias) occurred. And keep in mind, a Full Moon is only the technical instant when the Moon is opposite to the Sun and merely appears fully illuminated as seen from our Earthly perspective. That’s 180 degrees solar elongation, if you want to be precise. Of course, the orbit of the Moon is tilted about 5 degrees relative to the ecliptic, meaning that it’s only precisely opposite to the Sun during a central total lunar eclipse, when it’s immersed in the shadow of the Earth. Though the Moon approaches it, it never really reaches 100% illumination as seen from the Earth!

The April 4th, 2015 Moon, at 99.8% illuminated and about as 'Full' as it ever gets. Image credit and copyright: Chris Lyons
The April 4th, 2015 Moon, at 99.8% illuminated and about as ‘Full’ as it ever gets. Image credit and copyright: Chris Lyons

So much for werewolves…

The Moon also appears pretty darned close to Full on days it isn’t on the dates surrounding this instant in time. We say the Moon is then either waxing gibbous (headed towards Full) or waning gibbous (after Full).

Here’s what the Full Moon doesn’t do, though we’ve heard ‘em all over the years:  Increase birth rates, criminal activity, cause an increase in car accidents, cause a spike in earthquake activity, or affect fishing expedition outcomes. Well, OK, you might have more success finding your way back to shore using the moonlight as a guide if you stay out after dark…

A 2013 Swiss study in the journal of Current Biology has suggested a possible link between lunar and human sleep cycles, though again, this is very tentative. (thanks to K.E.M Lindblom @the_egghunter on Twitter for bringing this one to our attention.)

Update: Astronomer Jean-Luc Margot has brought it the attention of Universe Today that said lunar sleep study has been debunked last year.

So, what does the Moon do? Well, for one, it does a great job stabilizing the Earth’s rotational axis over the long term. One only has the look at moonless Mars (for the sake of this discussion, the tiny captured asteroids Phobos and Deimos do not count) to see what variations in the axial tilt of our world would be like without the Moon. And certain species of sea turtles along the Florida Gulf Coast do, in fact, hatch right around the time on the spring Full Moon. The Moon also provides us with a nifty celestial timekeeper: a good example is the Muslim calendar, which is based solely on the cycle of the Moon. The Full Moon also provided the human species with a fine study of celestial mechanics 101. Newton would’ve had a much tougher prospect figuring out his laws of gravity in its absence.

And finally, the Full Moon does affect the migratory patterns of deep sky astrophotographers, as they ‘pack it in’ in the weeks around the light polluting Full Moon, perchance to process and clean up images.. .

Headed towards Full... this week's thin waxing crescent Moon. Image credit: David Dickinson
Headed towards Full… this week’s thin waxing crescent Moon. Image credit: David Dickinson

All thoughts to ponder on the next Full Moon, which occurs on June 2nd… at 16:22 UT/12:22 AM EDT, to be precise.

So, as with all things that arc towards the astrological, we’ll defer to Shakespeare, who said, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars… but in ourselves. “

What other wacky lunar tie-ins have you heard of?

China Scores Historic Success as Chang’e-3 Rover Lands on the Moon Today

Photo taken on Dec. 14, 2013 shows a picture of the moon surface taken by the on-board camera of lunar probe Chang’e-3 on the screen of the Beijing Aerospace Control Center in Beijing. This marks the first time that China has sent a spacecraft to soft land on the surface of an extraterrestrial body. Credit: Xinhua/CCTV
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China scored a stunning, history making success with the successful touchdown of the ambitious Chang’e-3 probe with the ‘Yutu’ rover on the surface of the Moon today, Dec. 14, on the country’s first ever attempt to conduct a landing on an extraterrestrial body.

The dramatic Chang’e-3 soft landing on the lava filled plains of the Bay of Rainbows occurred at about 8:11 am EST, 9:11 p.m. Beijing local time, 1311 GMT today.

The monumental feat is the first landing on the Moon by any entity in nearly four decades. It was broadcast live on CCTV, China’s state run television network.

Note: Read my related new story with a photo gallery of Yutu’s 6 wheels rolling onto lunar soil – here

This maiden Chinese moon landing marks a milestone achievement for China and clearly demonstrates the country’s technological prowess.

chang'e-3 approach 1A tidal wave of high fives was unleashed by the huge teams of Chinese space engineers teams controlling the flight from the Beijing Aerospace Control Center (BACC).

There was also a huge sense of relief from the nail biting tension upon confirmation of the successful soft landing following many years of hard work and intense planning.

The Chang’e-3 mission entails the first soft landing on the Moon by anyone since the Soviet Union’s unmanned Luna 24 sample return vehicle touched down back in 1976.

Artists concept of the rocket assisted landing of China’s lunar probe Chang'e-3.
Artists concept of the rocket assisted landing of China’s lunar probe Chang’e-3.

China now joins an elite club of three, including the United States, who have mastered the critical technology required to successfully touch down on Earth’s nearest neighbor.

China’s space vision also stands in total contrast to the utter lack of vision emanating from so called political leaders in Washington, DC who stymie NASA and US science at every opportunity!

‘Yutu’ could very well serve as a forerunner for testing the key technologies required for a Chinese manned lunar landing in the next decade.

In one of its first acts from the surface, the landers life giving solar panels were deployed as planned within minutes of touchdown

The Chang’e-3 mission is comprised of China’s ‘Yutu’ lunar lander riding piggyback atop a much larger four legged landing vehicle.

The Chang’e-3 lander transmitted its first images of the moon in real time during its approach to the lunar surface during the final stages of the ongoing landing operation carried live by CCTV.

A total of 59 images were received instead of the 10 expected, said a CCTV commentator.

The voyage from the Earth to the Moon began 12 days ago with the flawless launch of Chang’e-3 atop China’s Long March 3-B booster at 1:30 a.m. Beijing local time, Dec. 2, 2013 (12:30 p.m. EST, Dec. 1) from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center, in southwest China.

Chang’e-3 made a rocket powered descent to the Moon’s surface today by firing the landing thrusters starting at the altitude of 15 km (9 mi) for a soft landing targeted to a preselected area on the Bay of Rainbows.

The powered descent was autonomous and took about 12 minutes.

The variable thrust engine can continuously vary its thrust power between 1,500 to 7,500 newtons. It was the biggest ever used by China in space said a commentator on CCTV.

The variable thrust engine enabled Chang’e-3 to reduce its deceleration as it approached the moon.

The descent was preprogrammed and controlled by the probe itself, not from the ground.

A descent camera was mounted on the lander’s belly

The 1200 kg lander is equipped with unprecedented terrain recognition equipment and software to hover above the landing site and confirm it was safe. This enabled the craft to avoid rock and boulder fields that could spell catastrophe even in the final seconds before touchdown if the vehicle were to land directly on top of them.

The descent engine fired until the lander was about hovering 100 meters above the lunar surface.

After determining it was safe to proceed, the lander descended further to about 3 meters. The engine then cut off and the lander free fell the remaining distance. The impact was cushioned by shock absorbers.

The solar panels soon unfurled. They are the most efficient Chinese solar panels available, said a CCTV commentator.

The Bay of Rainbows, or Sinus Iridum region, is located in the upper left portion of the moon as seen from Earth. You can see the landing site with your own eyes.

It was imaged in high resolution by China’s prior lunar mission – the Chang’e-2 lunar orbiter – and is shown in graphics herein.

The Yutu rover is also unfurling its solar panels and mast today.

Yutu, which translates as Jade Rabbit, stands 150 centimeters high, or nearly 5 feet – human height.

It weighs approximately 120 kilograms and sports a robotic arm equipped with advanced science instruments.

On Sunday, the six-wheeled ‘Yutu’ rover with a rocker bogie suspension similar to NASA’s Mars rovers will be lowered in stages to the moon’s surface in a complex operation and then drive off a pair of landing ramps to explore the moon’s terrain for at least three months.

In what promises to be a space spectacular, the lander and rover are expected to photograph one another soon after Yutu rolls onto the Bay of Rainbows.

They will work independently.

The rover and lander are equipped with multiple cameras, spectrometers, an optical telescope, ground penetrating radar and other sensors to investigate the lunar surface and composition.

The radar instrument installed at the bottom of the rover can penetrate 100 meters deep below the surface to study the Moon’s structure and composition in unprecedented detail, according to Ouyang Ziyuan, senior advisor of China’s lunar probe project, in an interview on CCTV.

The Chang’e-3 lander is powered by a combination of solar arrays and a nuclear battery said CCTV, in order to survive the two week long lunar nights.

Chinese space officials expect the lander will function a minimum of 1 year.

ESA’s network of tracking stations are providing crucial support to China for Chang’e-3 from launch to landing.

China’s Chang’e-3 probe joins NASA’s newly arrived LADEE lunar probe which entered lunar orbit on Oct. 6 following a spectacular night time blastoff from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Chang’e-3, LADEE, MAVEN, MOM, Mars rover and more news.

Ken Kremer

China's lunar probe Chang'e-3 is expected to land on Sinus Iridum (Bay of Rainbows) of the moon in mid-December 2013. Credit: Xinhua
China’s lunar probe Chang’e-3 landed on Sinus Iridum (Bay of Rainbows) of the moon on 14 December 2013. Credit: Xinhua

LADEE Lunar Probe Unveiled at NASA’s Wallops Launch Site in Virginia

NASA’s Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) Observatory has arrived at the launch site on the Eastern Shore of Virginia at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island and is now in the midst of weeks of performance testing to ensure it is ready for liftoff in early September.

The LADEE lunar orbiting probe will be the first planetary science mission ever launched from NASA Wallops and the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS). It will soar to space atop a solid fueled Minotaur V rocket on its maiden flight.

LADEE will blaze a brilliant trail to the Moon during a spectacular nighttime blastoff slated for Sept. 6, 2013 at 11:27 PM from Launch Pad 0B.

LADEE_1

LADEE is equipped with three science instruments to gather detailed information about the lunar atmosphere, conditions near the surface and environmental influences on lunar dust.

“LADEE will investigate the moons tenuous exosphere, trace outgases like the sodium halo and lofted dust at the terminator,” said Jim Green, Planetary Science Division Director at NASA HQ, in an exclusive interview with Universe Today.

“The spacecraft has a mass spectrometer to identify the gases, a physical dust detector and an imager to look at scattered light from the dust. These processes also occur at asteroids.”

“And it will also test a laser communications system that is a technology demonstrator for future planetary science missions. It communicates at 650 megabits per second,” Green explained to me.

The couch sized 844 pound (383 kg) robotic explorer was assembled at NASA’s Ames Research Center, Moffett Field Calif., and is a cooperative project with NASA Goddard Spaceflight Center in Maryland.

The LADEE spacecraft awaits spin balance testing, conducted to ensure stability during flight, at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.  LADEE is slated to liftoff from Wallops  on Sep. 5, 2013  July 10.  Credit:  NASA/Patrick Black
The LADEE spacecraft awaits spin balance testing, conducted to ensure stability during flight, at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. LADEE is slated to liftoff from Wallops on Sept. 6, 2013. Credit: NASA/Patrick Black

The spacecraft was then shipped cross country by a dedicated truck inside a specially-designed shipping container – blanketed with protective nitrogen – which insulated the spacecraft from temperature, moisture, bumps in the road and more than a few crazy drivers.

The first leg of LADEE’s trip to the Moon took 5 days. The trans lunar leg will take 30 days.

It’s standard practice that whenever space probes are moved by ground transportation that they are accompanied by a caravan that includes a lead scout vehicle to ensure safe road conditions and followed by engineers monitoring the health and environmental storage conditions.

Technicians are now engaged in a lengthy series of performance tests to confirm that LADEE was not damaged during the road trip and that all spacecraft systems are functioning properly.

“One important preparation about to begin is spin-balancing LADEE,” says Butler Hine, LADEE Project Manager. “During this procedure, the spacecraft is mounted to a spin table and rotated at a high-speed to make sure it is perfectly balanced for launch.”

After all spacecraft systems pass the performance tests, LADEE will be fueled, encapsulated and moved to the Wallops Island launch pad later this summer for mating with the five stage Minotaur V booster stack.

“I’m excited about the night launch because people up and down the Atlantic seacoast will be able to see it,” Green told me.

Ken Kremer

LADEE Launch Pad 0B at NASA Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Looking up the Flame Trench –
LADEE Launch Pad 0B at NASA Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Aerial view of NASA Wallops launch site on Virginia shore shows launch pads for both suborbital and orbital rockets. The Antares rocket Pad 0A for missions to the ISS is in the foreground.  Suborbital rockets blast off just behind the Pad 0A water tower. This photo was snapped from on top of Pad 0B that will soon launch NASA‘s LADEE orbiter to the Moon. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com
Aerial view of NASA Wallops launch site on Virginia shore shows launch pads for both suborbital and orbital rockets. The Antares rocket Pad 0A for missions to the ISS is in the foreground. Suborbital rockets blast off just behind the Pad 0A water tower. This photo was snapped from on top of Pad 0B that will soon launch NASA‘s LADEE orbiter to the Moon. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com

GRAIL Unveiled for Lunar Science Trek — Launch Reset to Sept. 10

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NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) moon mapping twins and the mighty Delta II rocket that will blast the high tech physics experiment to space on a lunar science trek were magnificently unveiled in the overnight darkness in anticipation of a liftoff that had originally been planned for the morning of Sept. 8.

Excessively high upper level winds ultimately thwarted Thursday’s launch attempt.

NASA late today has just announced a further postponement by another day to Saturday Sept. 10 to allow engineers additional time to review propulsion system data from Thursday’s detanking operation after the launch attempt was scrubbed to Friday. Additional time is needed by the launch team to review the pertinent data to ensure a safe blastoff of the $496 Million GRAIL mission.

There are two instantaneous launch opportunities at 8:29:45 a.m. and 9:08:52 a.m. EDT at Cape Canaveral, eight minutes earlier than was planned on Sept. 8. The weather forecast for Sept. 10 still shows a 60 percent chance of favorable conditions for a launch attempt.

GRAIL A and B enclosed in nose cone atop Delta II rocket at Cape Canaveral, Florida. Umbilical’s connect from Delta 2 to Fixed Umbilical Tower (FUT).
Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)

Despite a rather poor weather prognosis, the heavy space coast cloud cover had almost completely cleared out in the final hours before launch, the surface winds were quite calm and we all expected to witness a thunderous liftoff. But measurements from weather balloons sent aloft indicated that the upper level winds were “red” and violated the launch criteria.

Mobile Service Tower is retracted from around Delta II rocket at Pad 17B. Credit: Ken Kremer

As the launch gantry was quickly retracted at Launch Complex 17B on Sept. 7, the Delta was bathed in xenon spotlights that provided a breathtaking light show as the service structure moved a few hundred feet along rails.

The cocoon like Mobile Service Tower (MST) provides platforms to access the rocket at multiple levels to prepare the vehicle and spacecraft for flight. The MST also protects the rocket from weather and impacts from foreign debris.

The GRAIL A and B mirror image twins ride side by side to space atop the Delta rocket. The washing machine spacecraft weigh about 677 pounds (307 kg) each.

The Delta II rocket stands 128 feet tall and is 8 feet in diameter. The first stage liquid and solid rocket fueled engines will generate about 1.3 million pounds of thrust.

During the Terminal Countdown, the first stage is fueled with cryogenic liquid oxygen and highly refined kerosene (RP-1).

GRAIL is an extraordinary first ever journey to the center of the moon that will — with its instruments from orbit — peer into the moons interior from crust to core and map its gravity field by 100 to 1000 times better than ever before. The mission employs two satellites flying in tandem formation some 50 km in near circular polar orbit above the lunar surface.

GRAIL A and B will perform high precision range-rate measurements between them using a Ka-band instrument. The mission will provide unprecedented insight into the formation and thermal evolution of the moon that can be applied to the other rocky planets in our solar system: Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars.

After a 3.5 month journey to the moon, the probes will arrive about a day apart on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day 2012 for an 82 day science mapping phase as the moon rotates three times beneath the GRAIL orbit.

Photojournalists watch as Mobile Service Tower is retracted from around Delta II rocket at Pad 17B.
Credit: Ken Kremer

Xenon spotlights bathe Delta II rocket as Mobile Service Tower is retracted at Pad 17 and photojournalists watch from nearby at Pad 17B. Credit: Ken Kremer

Read Ken’s continuing features about GRAIL
Last Delta II Rocket to Launch Extraordinary Journey to the Center of the Moon on Sept. 8
NASAs Lunar Mapping Duo Encapsulated and Ready for Sept. 8 Liftoff
GRAIL Lunar Twins Mated to Delta Rocket at Launch Pad
GRAIL Twins ready for NASA Science Expedition to the Moon: Photo Gallery