The Moon in Stunning Wide Angle

Marius Hills region on the Moon, from LRO's Wide Angle Camera.


Here’s a look at the Moon in a way we’ve never quite seen it before: a close up, but wide angle view. The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter camera actually consists of three cameras: there are two narrow-angle cameras which make high-resolution, black-and-white images of the surface, with resolutions down to 1 meter (about 3.3 feet). A third, a wide-angle camera (WAC), takes color and ultraviolet images over the complete lunar surface at 100-meter (almost 330-foot) resolution. However, the raw wide-angle images are somewhat distorted by the camera, but Maurice Collins, a Moon enthusiast from New Zealand, found that putting several images together in a mosaic removes a lot of the distortions and produces a much clearer image. The results are nothing short of stunning; here are a few example of Maurice’s handiwork, including this jaw-dropping image of the Marius Hills region of the Moon. Click on any of these images for a larger version on Maurice’s website, Moon Science

Copernicus Crater on the Moon, captured by LROC's wide angle camera. Image processing by Maurice Collins

Maurice told me that he has been studying the Moon for about ten years now, and he does telescopic imaging of the Moon from his backyard Palmerston North, New Zealand as well as study the various spacecraft data. “I found out how to process the WAC images from Rick Evans (his website is here ) for the Octave processing method, and I also use a tool developed by Jim Mosher for another quicker technique,” Maurice said. Several of Maurice’s images have been featured on the Lunar Photo of the Day website.

Aristarchus Crater, as seen by LROC's wide angle camera. Image processing by Maurice Collins

Other areas of lunar imaging work he has done is using the Lunar Terminator Visualization Tool (LTVT) to study the lunar topography from the Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter (LOLA) digital elevation model laser altimeter data.

“Using a previous DEM from the Kaguya spacecraft I discovered a new large (630km long) mountain ridge radial to the Imbrium basin which I have nicknamed “Shannen Ridge” after my 9 year old daughter,” he said. See the image of Shannen Ridge here.

Maurice said he is usually out every clear night imaging or observing the Moon with his telescope. Thanks to Maurice for his wonderful work, and for allowing us at Universe Today to post some of the images. Check out his complete cache of WAC mosaics at his website.

hat tip: Stu Atkinson!

Water on the Moon Could be Bad News for Future Lunar Astronomy

A false colour composite of the distribution of water and hydroxyl molecules over the lunar surface. Credit: ISRO/NASA/JPL-Caltech/Brown Univ./USGS


The recent discovery of water on the Moon may have a serious impact on future plans for lunar based astronomy. Space scientists from the Chinese Academy of Sciences have calculated that the scattering caused by molecules vaporized in sunlight could heavily distort observations from telescopes mounted on the Moon.

“Last year, scientists discovered a fine dew of water covering the Moon. This water vaporizes in sunlight and is then broken down by ultraviolet radiation, forming hydrogen and hydroxyl molecules. We recalculated the amount of hydroxyl molecules that would be present in the lunar atmosphere and found that it could be two or three orders higher than previously thought,” said Zhao Hua, who presented his team’s results at the European Planetary Science Congress in Rome.
The research has particular implications for the Chinese Lunar lander, Chang’E-3, which is planned to be launched in 2013. An ultraviolet astronomical telescope will be installed on the Chang’E-3 lander, which will operate on the sunlit surface of the Moon, powered by solar panels.

“At certain ultraviolet wavelengths, hydroxyl molecules cause a particular kind of scattering where photons are absorbed and rapidly re-emitted. Our calculations suggest that this scattering will contaminate observations by sunlit telescopes,” said Zhao.

The Moon’s potential as a site for building astronomical observatories has been discussed since the era of the Space Race. Lunar-based telescopes could have several advantages over astronomical telescopes on Earth, including a cloudless sky and low seisimic activity.

The far-side of the Moon could be an ideal site for radio astronomy, being permanently shielded from interference from the Earth. Radio observations would not be affected by the higher hydroxyl levels.

Source: European Planetary Science Conference

LRO Finds Bridges on the Moon

A natural bridge on the Moon. Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University


“Just when you think you have seen everything, LROC reveals a natural bridge on the Moon!” said Mark Robinson, Principal Investigator of the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC), writing on the LROC website. “Who would have thought?” The natural bridge seen in this image is about 7 meters (23 feet) wide on top and perhaps 9 meters (30 feet) on the bottom side. Scientists estimate it would be a 20-meter (66-foot) walk to cross from one side to the other. While there are natural bridges here on Earth (which usually form as a result of wind and water erosion — see here for images of a natural bridge in Virginia in the US) how would such a natural structure form on the Moon? The answer might include another intriguing feature that has been found recently on the Moon: lava tubes.

Lunar bridge in 3-D. Image credit: NASA, GSFC/Arizona State University. Stereo image by Nathanial Burton-Bradford.

Robinson said the most likely way this feature formed is from a dual collapse into a lava tube. These are deep holes on the Moon that could open into vast underground tunnels, and could serve as a safe, radiation shielding habitats for future human lunar explorers.

There are actually a couple of these natural bridges that were found in just one region on the Moon, in the midst of an impact melt in the 15 km-wide King crater. Nathanial Burton-Bradford has created a few stereo images, which provide a unique perspective on these lunar bridges. Nathanial called the one below a “strange ‘twiglet’ ‘Monster Munch’ shape bridge.”

Another natural lunar bridge. Credit: NASA/GSFC/University of Arizona. Stereo image by Nathanial Burton-Bradford.

How can the lunar scientists be certain this feature really is bridge over a cavern? Look closely at the top image and in the pit on the west or left side, there is a small crescent of light on its floor. That patch of light came from the east, under the bridge.

Although Robinson and his team do not know for certain the details of how the bridge formed, here’s one possible scenario: The impact melt that was thrown out of the crater pooled on the newly deposited ejecta and must be many tens of meters thick, allowing its interior to stay molten for a long time. As the local terrain readjusted after the shock of the impact, the substrate of this massive pool of melt was jostled to some degree. Local pressures built up and the melt moved around under a deforming crust. You can see that the south end of the bridge extends from a small local rise, shaped something like a blister. Perhaps some melt was locally pushed up forming the rise, then the magma found a path to flow away, leaving a void which the crusted roof partially collapsed.

The LROC team is working on making their own stereo images, but in the meantime, thanks to Nathanial Burton-Bradford for providing us with a preview!

See more on the LROC website, and at Nathanial’s Flickr page.

September 18 is International Observe the Moon Night

The first annual International Observe the Moon Night is Sept. 18, 2010.


There’s nothing like gazing at the Moon on a clear night, especially when you can share it with someone. Why not share it with the world? September 18, 2010 is the first annual International Observe the Moon Night, and this is planned to become an annual event to engage the public and raise awareness about the night sky and particularly the Moon, as well as spreading the word about NASA’s work in lunar research and exploration. Event planners hope to bring people together with both professional and amateur astronomers, and there are events planned all around the world and on the world wide web, as well.

“Last year NASA Ames and NASA Goddard each had individual events that were very successful, so we decided to do it again, but make it bigger and better and ask the rest of the world to join in,” said Doris Daou, who is the Director of Communications and Outreach for the NASA Lunar Science Institute.

Last year’s events celebrated the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter’s successful orbit insertion around the Moon and the Goddard Center hosted an event called “We’re at the Moon!” while NASA Ames had a “National Observe the Moon Night.”

“Since this year is now an international event, we have an overarching theme, ‘Seeing the Moon in a Whole New Light,’ which is largely based on the fact that we have all this wonderful new data that has come back during the past year from the Lunar Renaissance Orbiter as well as the Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft and other spacecraft,” said Lora Bleacher the Informal Education Lead for the LRO mission.

“LRO is changing our understanding and our view of the Moon,” said Brian Day, the Education and Public Outreach Lead for NASA’s Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer Mission (LADEE). “All the recent lunar news has raised the public’s consciousness of the Moon to a whole new degree. It’s exciting to see the heightened level of interest that the public has in the Moon now, and our understanding of the moon has changed radically over a short amount of time. So we are giving everyone the opportunity to conduct their own personal explorations of the lunar surface and in doing so learn about how our understanding of the Moon has changed.“

Amateur and professional astronomers will be sharing first hand views of the Moon with the public, for example, the Night Sky Network, which is a collaboration between NASA and the Astronomy Society of the Pacific and is an organization of some 300 amateur astronomy clubs across the US will be holding events. Other NASA centers, museums, and science centers are involved, and the event has also caught on internationally, lead by international partners of the NASA Lunar Science Institute, Astronomers Without Borders, and other groups.

“Not only will people be able to come to a location near them and look through a telescope, which I highly recommend,” said Day, “there will also be presentation by local lunar experts.”

To see if there is an event near you, visit the InOMN website. There are also star charts, Moon maps, and information on how you can host your own event.

You can also follow @observethemoon on Twitter to share your Moon-watching experiences in that venue.

Also, you can listen to a 365 Days of Astronomy/NLSI podcast I did about InOMN.

Moon Zoo is participating with an online challenge for the Zooites to classify 20,000 images between now and the end of September 19th (midnight BST). With everyone’s help they hope to add 440 square kilometers (275 square miles) of features that will be classified on the Moon, which is the size of the Dead Sea, or twice the size of Metropolitan Chicago. In total, Moon Zoo has already provided the lunar science community with information on the locations of craters, spacecraft, and geologic features such as rilles and boulder fields for more than 38,600 square kilometers (24,000 square miles) of lunar terrain. You can follow the progress on the “Moonometer.”

Event organizers are already looking towards the future and keeping the Moon momentum going. Next year’s theme will have a cultural focus to celebrate what the Moon means to people around the world.

“This is an annual event that will happen every year around the same time depending what phase of the Moon we’ll be in,” said Daou, “but also throughout the year we’ll be having bits and pieces of new regarding the Moon on our website, so don’t wait until the Fall to see what is new on our website!

LRO Takes Closer Look at Moon Caves

Spectacular high Sun view of the Mare Tranquillitatis pit crater revealing boulders on an otherwise smooth floor. Image is 400 meters wide, north is up, NAC M126710873R [NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University].

As promised, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter is taking more detailed looks at the lunar pits, or lava tubes that have been discovered by LRO and the Kaguya spacecraft. These are deep holes on the moon that could open into vast underground tunnels, and could serve as a safe, radiation shielding habitats for future human lunar explorers. Plus, they are just plain intriguing! This image of a pit found in the Sea of Tranquility (Mare Tranquillitatis) was taken as the Sun was almost straight overhead, illuminating the region. By comparing this image with previous images that have different lighting, scientists can estimate the depth of the pit. They believe it to be over 100 meters!

See more “in-depth” look at more of the caves on the Moon, below:

Two views of Mare Ingenii pit Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University.

These two images show a pit in Mare Ingenii, which reveal different portions of the floor as the Sun crosses from west to east. Again, by measuring the shadows in different lighting, the Sea of Cleverness pit appears to be about 70 meters deep and about 120 meters wide.

These long, winding lava tubes are like structures we have on Earth. They are created when the top of a stream of molten rock solidifies and the lava inside drains away, leaving a hollow tube of rock. There have been hints that the Moon had lava tubes based on observations of long, winding depressions carved into the lunar surface by the flow of lava, called sinuous rilles.

If a human geologist could ever climb down inside these tubes on the Moon, we could learn so much about the Moon’s history, and sort of travel back in time by studying the different layers on the Moon, just like we do on Earth.

Three views of the Marius Hills pit. Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University.

LROC has now imaged the Marius Hills pit three times, each time with very different lighting. The center view has an incidence angle of 25° that illuminates about three-quarters of the floor. The Marius pit is about 34 meters deep and 65 by 90 meters wide.

Read more about the Ingenii, Tranquillitatis, and Marius pits at the LROC website, and you can search the nearby area for clues in the full LROC NAC frame that may help determine if an extended lava tube system still exists beneath the surface.

Source: LROC website

Tonight’s the Night Mars Will NOT Look as Big as the Full Moon

The night sky on August 27, 2010. Image from


I wasn’t going to write an article about the Mars-Moon Hoax this year because I thought it was too passé — we’ve written articles about this email-circulated fallacy every year since 2003 and another article would be like beating a dead horse because surely, there’s no one out there anymore that actually believes Mars can look as big as the full Moon.

But I just looked at some stats and saw that our article on the topic from 2007, “Will Mars Look as Big as the Full Moon On August 27? Nope” has gotten like a gazillion hits the past few days, so obviously people are Googling the topic, wondering if Mars will look as big as the full Moon tonight.

Short answer: No. If you looked at the night sky last night, Mars was not as big as the full Moon then, and it won’t be that big tonight. Moreover, it won’t be that big, ever. It is impossible for Mars to ever look as big as the full Moon. And this year (2010) in August, Mars is just barely visible, as a faint object low in the west after sunset. Take a look at the sky chart above from which shows you where it is. And you can read more about Mars in 2010 at the website, which is a great resource for all sorts of science topics and is written by some of the world’s top scientists.

The confusion arises from an erroneous and completely hoaxy email that started in 2003 when Mars was about as close to Earth it will ever get, but still, it was very far away, about 55,758,006 kilometers (34,646,418 miles). It did not look as big as the full Moon then, and it certainly never will. Take a look at JPL’s blog post, “Five Things About Viewing Mars in August” written by outreach specialist Jane Houston Jones. She writes:

“The moon is one-quarter the size of Earth and is relatively close — only about 384,000 kilometers (about 239,000 miles) away. On the other hand, Mars is one-half the size of Earth and it orbits the sun 1-1/2 times farther out than Earth’s orbit. The closest it ever gets to Earth is at opposition every 26 months. The last Mars opposition was in January and the next one is in March 2011.

At opposition, Mars will be 101 million kilometers (63 million miles) from Earth, almost twice as far as in 2003. So from that distance, Mars could never look the same as our moon.”

NASA usually writes an article about this every year as well — and this year it is called “The Mutating Mars Hoax.”

Every year, Universe Today has been debunking the erroneous email that has been going around since 2003. If you’d like to look back, here are a few: 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, and 2005. If you don’t believe Fraser and me, Phil Plait the Bad Astronomer debunks the email here, here , here, and here’s the original one back in 2003.

And by the way, I stole the title for this article from my friend Rob Sparks, who said on Twitter this morning, “Today’s the day Mars won’t look as big as the full Moon.” He wrote a great blog post about the Mars-Moon hoax on his “Half-Astrophysics” blog.

So, yes, tonight is the night Mars will NOT look as big as the full Moon, and that goes for every other night, as well.

Just remember, you can’t always believe everything you read in a forwarded email!

First Quarter Moon

Flying Across the Moon
Flying Across the Moon


The first quarter moon is actually the third phase of the moon each cycle. In the Northern Hemisphere during this phase, the right hand 50% of the moon is visible during the afternoon and the early part of the night. In the Southern Hemisphere the left hand 50% of the moon can be seen. This lunar phase follows the new moon and the waxing crescent.

A lunar phase is the appearance of an illuminated portion of the moon as seen by an observer. For this article the observer is always on Earth. The lunar phases vary in a definite cycle as the moon orbits the Earth. The phases change based on the changing relative positions of the Earth, moon, and Sun. Half of the moon’s surface is always illuminated by the Sun, but the portion of the illuminated hemisphere that is visible to an observer can vary from 100%(full moon) to 0%(new moon). The only exception is during a lunar eclipse. The boundary between the light and dark portions of the moon is called the terminator.

There are 8 moon phases. These phases are: new moon, waxing crescent, first quarter moon, waxing gibbous, full moon, waning gibbous, last quarter moon, and waning crescent. The phases progress in the same manner each month. Earlier, it was mentioned that the lunar phase depends on the position of the Earth, moon, and Sun. During the new moon the Earth and Sun are on the opposite side of the moon. During the full moon the Earth and Sun are on the same sides of the Moon. The occasions when the Earth, Sun, and moon are in a straight line(new and full moon) are called syzygies.

When the moon passes between Earth and the Sun during a new moon, you might think that its shadow would cause a solar eclipse. On the other hand, you might think that during a full moon the Earth’s shadow would cause a lunar eclipse. The plane of the moon’s orbit around the Earth is tilted by about five degrees compared to the plane of Earth’s orbit around the Sun(called the ecliptic plane). This tilt prevents monthly eclipses. An eclipse can only occur when the moon is either new or full, but it also has to be positioned near the intersection of the Earth’s orbital plane about the Sun and the Moon’s orbit plane about the Earth, so there are between four and seven eclipses in a calendar year.

The first quarter moon is only one of eight lunar phases. You should research them all for a better understanding of the Earth/Moon system.

We have written many articles about the phases of the moon for Universe Today. Here’s an article about the 8 phases of the moon, and here’s an article about the moon phases for 2010.

If you’d like more info on the Moon, check out NASA’s Solar System Exploration Guide on the Moon, and here’s a link to NASA’s Lunar and Planetary Science page.

We’ve also recorded an entire episode of Astronomy Cast all about the Moon. Listen here, Episode 113: The Moon, Part 1.


MESSENGER Looks Back at the Earth and Moon

Earth and Moon from 114 Million Miles.Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington


A new image to add to the family photo album! The MESSENGER spacecraft is working its way to enter orbit around Mercury in March of 2011, and while wending its way, took this image of the Earth and Moon, visible in the lower left. When the image was taken in May 2010, MESSENGER was 183 million kilometers (114 million miles) away from Earth. For context, the average separation between the Earth and the Sun is about 150 million kilometers (93 million miles). It’s a thought provoking image (every one of us is in that image!), just like other Earth-Moon photos — Fraser put together a gallery of Earth-Moon images from other worlds, and this one will have to be added. But this image was taken not just for the aesthetics.

This image was taken as part of MESSENGER’s campaign to search for vulcanoids, small rocky objects hypothesized to exist in orbits between Mercury and the Sun. Though no vulcanoids have yet been detected, the MESSENGER spacecraft is in a unique position to look for smaller and fainter vulcanoids than has ever before been possible. MESSENGER’s vulcanoid searches occur near perihelion passages, when the spacecraft’s orbit brings it closest to the Sun. August 17, 2010 was another such perihelion, so if MESSENGER was successful in finding any tiny asteroids lurking close to the Sun, we may hear about it soon.


Tumbling Boulders Leave Trails on the Moon

mages from Moon Zoo showing trails from tumbling boulders in the Montes Alpes/Vallis Alpes region on the Moon. Credit: NASA/LRO/Moon Zoo.


There’s probably a great story in this image, if only someone was there to witness it as it happened! This is an image from Moon Zoo, the citizen science project from the Zooniverse that asks people to look at images from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and search for craters, boulders and more. And often, the Zooites find some very interesting features on the Moon, like this one and the ones below that include tracks from rolling, bounding, tumbling and sometimes bouncing boulders. Then the task for the scientists is to figure out what actually happened to get these boulders moving — was it an impact, are the boulder on the bottom of a hill, or was it some other unknown catalyst? As Zooniverse founder Chris Lintott says, “The Moon has its own landscape that is really quite dramatic, so it’s a world well worth exploring.”

LRO image from Moon Zoo.

Why look for tumbling boulders? Moon Zoo scientist Dr. Katie Joy gave this explanation:

“One of the main reasons we are asking Moon Zoo users to search for scars left behind by tumbling boulders is to help support future lunar exploration initiatives. Boulders that have rolled down hillsides from crater walls, or massifs like the Apollo 17 landing site, provide samples of geologic units that may be high up a hillside and thus difficult to access otherwise by a rover or a manned crew vehicle. If mission planning can include traverses to boulders that have rolled down hills, and we can track these boulders back up to the part of hillside from where they have originated, it provides a neat sampling strategy to accessing more geological units than would have been possible otherwise… Thus we hope to use Moon Zoo user data to produce a map of known boulder tracks (and terminal boulders) across the Moon.”

LRO image from Moon Zoo of boulder tracks.

See more unique boulder tracks images in the Moon Zoo forum thread on boulders.

If you want to join in on the fun of looking for mysteries on the Moon, check out Moon Zoo, or the Zooniverse for more citizen science projects where you can get involved in helping scientists do real science.

There’s Water On the Moon’s Surface, But Interior Could Be Dry

Hadley Rille, the landing site for Apollo 15. Credit: NASA


With all the recent news of water on the Moon, a new paper published today in the journal Science may offer a surprise – or it may bring us back to previous assumptions about the Moon. A new analysis of eleven lunar samples from the Apollo missions by Zachary Sharp from the University of New Mexico and his colleagues indicates that when the Moon formed, its interior was essentially dry. While the recent findings of ubiquitous water and hydroxyl on the surface as well as water ice in the lunar poles are not challenged by this new finding, it does dispute — somewhat — two other recent papers that proposed a wetter lunar interior than previously thought. “The recent LCROSS findings were of water on the lunar surface due to cometary impacts, and the ice is from the comets themselves,” Sharp told Universe Today. “We are talking about water that was present in the molten early Moon 4.5 billion years ago.”

The accepted theory of how the Moon formed is that a Mars-sized body slammed into our early Earth, creating a big disk of debris that would ultimately form into the Moon.

Although planetary scientists are still refining models of the Moon’s formation, there is much to suggest a dry Moon. Any water would have been vaporized by the high temperatures generated by the impact and cataclysm that followed, and vapor would have escaped into space. The assumption is that the only way there could be water in the Moon’s interior if is the impactor was especially water-rich, and also if the Moon solidified quickly, which is considered unlikely.

But earlier this year, Francis McCubbin and his team from the Carnegie Institution for Science released their findings of a surprisingly high abundance of water molecules — as high as several thousand parts per million — bound to phosphate minerals within volcanic lunar rocks, which would have formed well beneath the lunar surface and date back several billion years.

Additionally, in 2008, Alberto Saal of Brown University and colleagues found a slightly lower abundance of water in the lunar mantle, but it was significantly higher than the previous estimate of 1 part per billion.
These two findings have been pushing lunar scientists to find possible alternative explanations for the Moon’s formation to account for all the water.

But now, Sharp and his team studied a wide range of lunar basalts and measured the composition of chlorine isotopes. Using gas source mass spectrometry they found a wide range of chlorine isotopes contained in the samples which are 25 times greater than what is found in rocks and minerals from Earth and from meteorites.
Chlorine is very hydrophilic, or attracted to water, and is an extremely sensitive indicator of hydrogen levels. Sharp and his team say that, if lunar rocks had initial hydrogen contents anywhere close to those of terrestrial rocks, then the fractionation of chlorine into so many different isotopes would never have happened on the Moon. Because of this Sharp and his colleagues say their results suggest a very dry interior of the Moon.

Sharp proposes that Saal and McCubbin’s calculations of high hydrogen contents in some lunar samples are not typical, and perhaps those samples are the product of certain igneous processes that resulted in their “extremely volatile enrichment.” They do not, however, represent the high and variable isotopic chlorine values reported in the majority of lunar rocks, Sharp said.

Still, there could be a compromise between the varied findings. “There are uncertainties that one has to take into account when doing this type of study, ” Sharp told Universe Today, “and if we take the low estimates of Saal and McCubbin’s papers, they are not so different from our findings.”

But the discrepancies, however small, show that perhaps we can’t make generalizations about the entire Moon from limited samples.

“We have not yet looked for water in a wide range of lunar samples,” said Jeff Taylor from the University of Hawaii, who was not involved in any of the aforementioned studies. “It is quite possible that the initial differentiation of the Moon and subsequent processes such as mantle overturn concentrated whatever water the Moon had into certain areas. Until we measure more samples, including samples from the farside (represented by many of the lunar meteorites and eventually by sample-return missions), we will not know for sure how much water is in the bulk Moon.”

In combination, all the recent studies of the lunar surface show there is likely a complex chemistry on the Moon that we have yet to understand.

“In other words,” said Taylor, “we need more work!”

Source: Science News

Earlier Papers:

Nominally hydrous magmatism on the Moon by Francis McCubbin et al., 2010.

Volatile content of lunar volcanic glasses and the presence of water in the Moon’s interior, Alberto Saal et al. Nature.