Who was Gerard Kuiper?

Gerard Kuiper, founder of the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory. Credit: lpl.arizona.edu

In the outer reaches of the Solar System, beyond the orbit of Neptune, lies a region permeated by celestial objects and minor planets. This region is known as the “Kuiper Belt“, and is named in honor of the 20th century astronomer who speculated about the existence of such a disc decades before it was observed. This disc, he reasoned, was the source of the Solar Systems many comets, and the reason there were no large planets beyond Neptune.

Gerard Kuiper is also regarded by many as being the “father of planetary science”. During the 1960s and 70s, he played a crucial role in the development of infrared airborne astronomy, a technology which led to many pivotal discoveries that would have been impossible using ground-based observatories. At the same time, he helped catalog asteroids, surveyed the Moon, Mars and the outer Solar System, and discovered new moons.

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Who Was Galileo Galilei?

Portrait of Galileo Galilei by Giusto Sustermans (1636). Credit: nmm.ac.uk

When it comes to scientists who revolutionized the way we think of the universe, few names stand out like Galileo Galilei. A noted inventor, physicist, engineer and astronomer, Galileo was one of the greatest contributors to the Scientific Revolution. He build telescopes, designed a compass for surveying and military use, created a revolutionary pumping system, and developed physical laws that were the precursors of Newton’s law of Universal Gravitation and Einstein’s Theory of Relativity.

But it was within the field of astronomy that Galileo made his most enduring impact. Using telescopes of his own design, he discovered Sunspots, the largest moons of Jupiter, surveyed The Moon, and demonstrated the validity of Copernicus’ heliocentric model of the universe. In so doing, he helped to revolutionize our understanding of the cosmos, our place in it, and helped to usher in an age where scientific reasoning trumped religious dogma.

Early Life:

Galileo was born in Pisa, Italy, in 1564, into a noble but poor family. He was the first of six children of Vincenzo Galilei and Giulia Ammannati, who’s father also had three children out of wedlock. Galileo was named after an ancestor, Galileo Bonaiuti (1370 – 1450), a noted physician, university teacher and politician who lived in Florence.

His father, a famous lutenist, composer and music theorist, had a great impact on Galileo; transmitting not only his talent for music, but skepticism of authority, the value of experimentation, and the value of measures of time and rhythm to achieve success.

The Camaldolese Monastery at Vallombrosa, 35 km southeast of Florence, where Galileo was educated from to. Credit: nobility.org
The Camaldolese Monastery at Vallombrosa, 35 km southeast of Florence, where Galileo was educated until 1581. Credit: nobility.org

In 1572, when Galileo Galilei was eight, his family moved to Florence, leaving Galileo with his uncle Muzio Tedaldi (related to his mother through marriage) for two years.When he reached the age of ten, Galileo left Pisa to join his family in Florence and was tutored by Jacopo Borghini -a mathematician and professor from the university of Pisa.

Once he was old enough to be educated in a monastery, his parents sent him to the Camaldolese Monastery at Vallombrosa, located 35 km southeast of Florence. The Order was independent from the Benedictines, and combined the solitary life of the hermit with the strict life of a monk. Galileo apparently found this life attractive and intending to join the Order, but his father insisted that he study at the University of Pisa to become a doctor.


While at Pisa, Galileo began studying medicine, but his interest in the sciences quickly became evident. In 1581, he noticed a swinging chandelier, and became fascinated by the timing of its movements. To him, it became clear that the amount of time, regardless of how far it was swinging, was comparable to the beating of his heart.

When he returned home, he set up two pendulums of equal length, swinging one with a large sweep and the other with a small sweep, and found that they kept time together. These observations became the basis of his later work with pendulums to keep time – work which would also be picked up almost a century later when Christiaan Huygens designed the first officially-recognized pendulum clock.

Galileo Demonstrating the New Astronomical Theories at the University of Padua by Félix Parra (1873). Credit: munal.gob.mx
Galileo Demonstrating the New Astronomical Theories at the University of Padua, by Félix Parra (1873). Credit: munal.gob.mx

Shortly thereafter, Galileo accidentally attended a lecture on geometry, and talked his reluctant father into letting his study mathematics and natural philosophy instead of medicine. From that point onward, he began a steady processes of inventing, largely for the sake of appeasing his father’s desire for him to make money to pay off his siblings expenses (particularly those of his younger brother, Michelagnolo).

In 1589, Galileo was appointed to the chair of mathematics at the University of Pisa. In 1591, his father died, and he was entrusted with the care of his younger siblings. Being Professor of Mathematics at Pisa was not well paid, so Galileo lobbied for a more lucrative post. In 1592, this led to his appointment to the position of Professor of Mathematics at the University of Padua, where he taught Euclid’s geometry, mechanics, and astronomy until 1610.

During this period, Galileo made significant discoveries in both pure fundamental science as well as practical applied science. His multiple interests included the study of astrology, which at the time was a discipline tied to the studies of mathematics and astronomy. It was also while teaching the standard (geocentric) model of the universe that his interest in astronomy and the Copernican theory began to take off.


In 1609, Galileo received a letter telling him about a spyglass that a Dutchman had shown in Venice. Using his own technical skills as a mathematician and as a craftsman, Galileo began to make a series of telescopes whose optical performance was much better than that of the Dutch instrument.

Galileo Galilei's telescope with his handwritten note specifying the magnifying power of the lens, at an exhibition at The Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. Credit: AP Photo/Matt Rourke
Galileo Galilei’s telescope with his handwritten note specifying the magnifying power of the lens, at an exhibition at The Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. Credit: AP Photo/Matt Rourke

As he would later write in his 1610 tract Sidereus Nuncius (“The Starry Messenger”):

“About ten months ago a report reached my ears that a certain Fleming had constructed a spyglass by means of which visible objects, though very distant from the eye of the observer, were distinctly seen as if nearby. Of this truly remarkable effect several experiences were related, to which some persons believed while other denied them. A few days later the report was confirmed by a letter I received from a Frenchman in Paris, Jacques Badovere, which caused me to apply myself wholeheartedly to investigate means by which I might arrive at the invention of a similar instrument. This I did soon afterwards, my basis being the doctrine of refraction.”

His first telescope – which he constructed between June and July of 1609 – was made from available lenses and had a three-powered spyglass. To improve upon this, Galileo learned how to grind and polish his own lenses. By August, he had created an eight-powered telescope, which he presented to the Venetian Senate.

By the following October or November, he managed to improve upon this with the creation a twenty-powered telescope. Galileo saw a great deal of commercial and military applications of his instrument(which he called a perspicillum) for ships at sea. However, in 1610, he began turning his telescope to the heavens and made his most profound discoveries.

Galileo Galilei showing the Doge of Venice how to use the telescope by Giuseppe Bertini (1858). Credit: gabrielevanin.it
Galileo Galilei showing the Doge of Venice how to use the telescope, by Giuseppe Bertini (1858). Credit: gabrielevanin.it

Achievements in Astronomy:

Using his telescope, Galileo began his career in astronomy by gazing at the Moon, where he discerned patterns of uneven and waning light. While not the first astronomer to do this, Galileo artistic’s training and knowledge of chiaroscuro – the use of strong contrasts between light and dark – allowed him to correctly deduce that these light patterns were the result of changes in elevation. Hence, Galileo was the first astronomer to discover lunar mountains and craters.

In The Starry Messenger, he also made topographical charts, estimating the heights of these mountains. In so doing, he challenged centuries of Aristotelian dogma that claimed that Moon, like the other planets, was a perfect, translucent sphere. By identifying that it had imperfections, in the forms of surface features, he began advancing the notion that the planets were similar to Earth.

Galileo also recorded his observations about the Milky Way in the Starry Messenger, which was previously believed to be nebulous. Instead, Galileo found that it was a multitude of stars packed so densely together that it appeared from a distance to look like clouds. He also reported that whereas the telescope resolved the planets into discs, the stars appeared as mere blazes of light, essentially unaltered in appearance by the telescope – thus suggesting that they were much farther away than previously thought.

Using his telescopes, Galileo also became one the first European astronomer to observe and study sunspots. Though there are records of previous instances of naked eye observations – such as in China (ca. 28 BCE), Anaxagoras in 467 BCE, and by Kepler in 1607 – they were not identifies as being imperfections on the surface of the Sun. In many cases, such as Kepler’s, it was thought that the spots were transits of Mercury.

In addition, there is also controversy over who was the first to observe sunspots during the 17th century using a telescope. Whereas Galileo is believed to have observed them in 1610, he did not publish about them and only began speaking to astronomers in Rome about them by the following year. In that time, German astronomer Christoph Scheiner had been reportedly observing them using a helioscope of his own design.

At around the same time, the Frisian astronomers Johannes and David Fabricius published a description of sunspots in June 1611. Johannes book, De Maculis in Sole Observatis (“On the Spots Observed in the Sun”) was published in autumn of 1611, thus securing credit for him and his father.

In any case, it was Galileo who properly identified sunspots as imperfections on the surface of the Sun, rather than being satellites of the Sun –  an explanation that Scheiner, a Jesuit missionary, advanced in order to preserve his beliefs in the perfection of the Sun.

Using a technique of projecting the Sun’s image through the telescope onto a piece of paper, Galileo deduced that sunspots were, in fact, on the surface of the Sun or in its atmosphere. This presented another challenge to the Aristotelian and Ptolemaic view of the heavens, since it demonstrated that the Sun itself had imperfections.

On January 7th, 1610, Galileo pointed his telescope towards Jupiter and observed what he described in Nuncius as “three fixed stars, totally invisible by their smallness” that were all close to Jupiter and in line with its equator. Observations on subsequent nights showed that the positions of these “stars” had changed relative to Jupiter, and in a way that was not consistent with them being part of the background stars.

Galilean Family Portrait
The Galilean moons, shown to scale – Io (top right), Europa (upper left), Ganymede (right) and Callisto (bottom left). Credit: NASA/JPL

By January 10th, he noted that one had disappeared, which he attributed to it being hidden behind Jupiter. From this, he concluded that the stars were in fact orbiting Jupiter, and they were satellites of it. By January 13th, he discovered a fourth, and named them the Medicean stars, in honor of his future patron, Cosimo II de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, and his three brothers.

Later astronomers, however, renamed them the Galilean Moons in honour of their discoverer. By the 20th century, these satellites would come to be known by their current names – Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto – which had been suggested by 17th century German astronomer Simon Marius, apparently at the behest of Johannes Kepler.

Galileo’s observations of these satellites proved to be another major controversy. For the first time, a planet other than Earth was shown to have satellites orbiting it, which constituted yet another nail in the coffin of the geocentric model of the universe. His observations were independently confirmed afterwards, and Galileo continued to observe the satellites them and even obtained remarkably accurate estimates for their periods by 1611.


Galileo’s greatest contribution to astronomy came in the form of his advancement of the Copernican model of the universe (i.e. heliocentrism). This began in 1610 with his publication of Sidereus Nuncius, which brought the issue of celestial imperfections before a wider audience. His work on sunspots and his observation of the Galilean Moons furthered this, revealing yet more inconsistencies in the currently accepted view of the heavens.

Cardinal Bellarmine had written in 1615 that the Copernican system could not be defended without "a true physical demonstration that the sun does not circle the earth but the earth circles the sun". Galileo considered his theory of the tides to provide the required physical proof of the motion of the earth. This theory was so important to him that he originally intended to entitle his Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems the Dialogue on the Ebb and Flow of the Sea. For Galileo, the tides were caused by the sloshing back and forth of water in the seas as a point on the Earth's surface sped up and slowed down because of the Earth's rotation on its axis and revolution around the Sun. He circulated his first account of the tides in 1616, addressed to Cardinal Orsini. His theory gave the first insight into the importance of the shapes of ocean basins in the size and timing of tides; he correctly accounted, for instance, for the negligible tides halfway along the Adriatic Sea compared to those at the ends. As a general account of the cause of tides, however, his theory was a failure. If this theory were correct, there would be only one high tide per day. Galileo and his contemporaries were aware of this inadequacy because there are two daily high tides at Venice instead of one, about twelve hours apart. Galileo dismissed this anomaly as the result of several secondary causes including the shape of the sea, its depth, and other factors. Against the assertion that Galileo was deceptive in making these arguments, Albert Einstein expressed the opinion that Galileo developed his "fascinating arguments" and accepted them uncritically out of a desire for physical proof of the motion of the Earth. Galileo dismissed the idea, held by his contemporary Johannes Kepler, that the moon caused the tides. He also refused to accept Kepler's elliptical orbits of the planets, considering the circle the "perfect" shape for planetary orbits.Cardinal Bellarmine had written in 1615 that the Copernican system could not be defended without "a true physical demonstration that the sun does not circle the earth but the earth circles the sun". Galileo considered his theory of the tides to provide the required physical proof of the motion of the earth. This theory was so important to him that he originally intended to entitle his Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems the Dialogue on the Ebb and Flow of the Sea. For Galileo, the tides were caused by the sloshing back and forth of water in the seas as a point on the Earth's surface sped up and slowed down because of the Earth's rotation on its axis and revolution around the Sun. He circulated his first account of the tides in 1616, addressed to Cardinal Orsini. His theory gave the first insight into the importance of the shapes of ocean basins in the size and timing of tides; he correctly accounted, for instance, for the negligible tides halfway along the Adriatic Sea compared to those at the ends. As a general account of the cause of tides, however, his theory was a failure. If this theory were correct, there would be only one high tide per day. Galileo and his contemporaries were aware of this inadequacy because there are two daily high tides at Venice instead of one, about twelve hours apart. Galileo dismissed this anomaly as the result of several secondary causes including the shape of the sea, its depth, and other factors. Against the assertion that Galileo was deceptive in making these arguments, Albert Einstein expressed the opinion that Galileo developed his "fascinating arguments" and accepted them uncritically out of a desire for physical proof of the motion of the Earth. Galileo dismissed the idea, held by his contemporary Johannes Kepler, that the moon caused the tides. He also refused to accept Kepler's elliptical orbits of the planets, considering the circle the "perfect" shape for planetary orbits.
Galileo’s Sidereus Nuncius (“Starry Messenger”), published in 1610, laid out his observations of the moon’s surface, which included mountains and impact craters. Credit: brunelleschi.imss.fi.it

Other astronomical observations also led Galileo to champion the Copernican model over the traditional Aristotelian-Ptolemaic (aka. geocentric) view. From September 1610 onward, Galileo began observing Venus, noting that it exhibited a full set of phases similar to that of the Moon. The only explanation for this was that Venus was periodically between the Sun and Earth; while at other times, it was on the opposite side of the Sun.

According to the geocentric model of the universe, this should have been impossible, as Venus’ orbit placed it closer to Earth than the Sun – where it could only exhibit crescent and new phases. However, Galileo’s observations of it going through crescent, gibbous, full and new phases was consistent with the Copernican model, which established that Venus orbited the Sun within the Earth’s orbit.

These and other observations made the Ptolemaic model of the universe untenable. Thus, by the early 17th century, the great majority of astronomers began to convert to one of the various geo-heliocentric planetary models – such as the Tychonic, Capellan and Extended Capellan models. These all had the virtue of explaining problems in the geocentric model without engaging in the “heretical” notion that Earth revolved around the Sun.

In 1632, Galileo addressed the “Great Debate” in his treatise Dialogo sopra i due massimi sistemi del mondo (Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems), in which he advocated the heliocentric model over the geocentric. Using his own telescopic observations, modern physics and rigorous logic, Galileo’s arguments effectively undermined the basis of Aristotle and Ptolemy’s system for a growing and receptive audience.

Frontispiece and title page of the Dialogue, 1632. Credit: moro.imss.fi.it
Frontispiece and title page of the Dialogue, 1632. Credit: moro.imss.fi.it

In the meantime, Johannes Kepler correctly identified the sources of tides on Earth – something which Galileo had become interesting in himself. But whereas Galileo attributed the ebb and flow of tides to the rotation of the Earth, Kepler ascribed this behavior to the influence of the Moon.

Combined with his accurate tables on the elliptical orbits of the planets (something Galileo rejected), the Copernican model was effectively proven. From the middle of the seventeenth century onward, there were few astronomers who were not Copernicans.

The Inquisition and House Arrest:

As a devout Catholic, Galileo often defended the heliocentric model of the universe using Scripture. In 1616, he wrote a letter to the Grand Duchess Christina, in which he argued for a non-literal interpretation of the Bible and espoused his belief in the heliocentric universe as a physical reality:

“I hold that the Sun is located at the center of the revolutions of the heavenly orbs and does not change place, and that the Earth rotates on itself and moves around it. Moreover … I confirm this view not only by refuting Ptolemy’s and Aristotle’s arguments, but also by producing many for the other side, especially some pertaining to physical effects whose causes perhaps cannot be determined in any other way, and other astronomical discoveries; these discoveries clearly confute the Ptolemaic system, and they agree admirably with this other position and confirm it.

More importantly, he argued that the Bible is written in the language of the common person who is not an expert in astronomy. Scripture, he argued, teaches us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go.

Galileo facing the Roman Inquisition. by Cristiano Banti's (1857). Credit: law.umkc.edu
Galileo facing the Roman Inquisition. by Cristiano Banti’s (1857). Credit: law.umkc.edu

Initially, the Copernican model of the universe was not seen as an issue by the Roman Catholic Church or it’s most important interpreter of Scripture at the time – Cardinal Robert Bellarmine. However, in the wake of the Counter-Reformation, which began in 1545 in response to the Reformation, a more stringent attitude began to emerge towards anything seen as a challenge to papal authority.

Eventually, matters came to a head in 1615 when Pope Paul V (1552 – 1621) ordered that the Sacred Congregation of the Index (an Inquisition body charged with banning writings deemed “heretical”) make a ruling on Copernicanism. They condemned the teachings of Copernicus, and Galileo (who had not been personally involved in the trial) was forbidden to hold Copernican views.

However, things changed with the election of Cardinal Maffeo Barberini (Pope Urban VIII) in 1623. As a friend and admirer of Galileo’s, Barberini opposed the condemnation of Galileo, and gave formal authorization and papal permission for the publication of Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems.

However, Barberini stipulated that Galileo provide arguments for and against heliocentrism in the book, that he be careful not to advocate heliocentrism, and that his own views on the matter be included in Galileo’s book. Unfortunately, Galileo’s book proved to be a solid endorsement of heliocentrism and offended the Pope personally.

Portrait, attributed to Murillo, of Galileo gazing at the words "E pur si muove" (not legible in this image) scratched on the wall of his prison cell. Credit:
Portrait of Galileo gazing at the words “E pur si muove” scratched on the wall of his prison cell, attributed to Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1618-1682). Credit: Wikipedia Commons

In it, the character of Simplicio, the defender of the Aristotelian geocentric view, is portrayed as an error-prone simpleton. To make matter worse, Galileo had the character Simplicio enunciate the views of Barberini at the close of the book, making it appear as though Pope Urban VIII himself was a simpleton and hence the subject of ridicule.

As a result, Galileo was brought before the Inquisition in February of 1633 and ordered to renounce his views. Whereas Galileo steadfastly defended his position and insisted on his innocence, he was eventually threatened with torture and declared guilty. The sentence of the Inquisition, delivered on June 22nd, contained three parts – that Galileo renounce Copernicanism, that he be placed under house arrest, and that the Dialogue be banned.

According to popular legend, after recanting his theory publicly that the Earth moved around the Sun, Galileo allegedly muttered the rebellious phrase: “E pur si muove” (“And yet it moves” in Latin). After a period of living with his friend, the Archbishop of Siena, Galileo returned to his villa at Arcetri (near Florence in 1634), where he spent the remainder of his life under house arrest.

Other Accomplishments:

In addition to his revolutionary work in astronomy and optics, Galileo is also credited with the invention of many scientific instruments and theories. Much of the devices he created were for the specific purpose of earning money to pay for his sibling’s expenses. However, they would also prove to have a profound impact in the fields of mechanics, engineering, navigation, surveying, and warfare.

Galileo's La Billancetta, in which he describes a method for hydrostatic balance. Credit: Museo Galileo
Galileo’s La Billancetta, in which he describes a method for hydrostatic balance. Credit: Museo Galileo

In 1586, at the age of 22, Galileo made his first groundbreaking invention. Inspired by the story of Archimedes and his “Eureka” moment, Galileo began looking into how jewelers weighed precious metals in air and then by displacement to determine their specific gravity. Working from this, he eventually theorized of a better method, which he described in a treatise entitled La Bilancetta (“The Little Balance”).

In this tract, he described an accurate balance for weighing things in air and water, in which the part of the arm on which the counter weight was hung was wrapped with metal wire. The amount by which the counterweight had to be moved when weighing in water could then be determined very accurately by counting the number of turns of the wire. In so doing, the proportion of metals like gold to silver in the object could be read off directly.

In 1592, when Galileo was a professor of mathematics at the University of Padua, he made frequent trips to the Arsenal – the inner harbor where Venetian ships were outfitted. The Arsenal had been a place of practical invention and innovation for centuries, and Galileo used the opportunity to study mechanical devices in detail.

In 1593, he was consulted on the placement of oars in galleys and submitted a report in which he treated the oar as a lever and correctly made the water the fulcrum. A year later the Venetian Senate awarded him a patent for a device for raising water that relied on a single horse for the operation. This became the basis of modern pumps.

A replica of the earliest surviving telescope attributed to Galileo Galilei, on display at the Griffith Observatory. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Mike Dunn
A replica of the earliest surviving telescope attributed to Galileo Galilei, on display at the Griffith Observatory. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Mike Dunn

To some, Galileo’s Pump was a merely an improvement on the Archimedes Screw, which was first developed in the third century BCE and patented in the Venetian Republic in 1567. However, there is no apparent evidence connecting Galileo’s invention to Archimedes’ earlier and less sophisticated design.

In ca. 1593, Galileo constructed his own version of a thermoscope, a forerunner of the thermometer, that relied on the expansion and contraction of air in a bulb to move water in an attached tube. Over time, he and his colleagues worked to develop a numerical scale that would measure the heat based on the expansion of the water inside the tube.

The cannon, which was first introduced to Europe in 1325, had become a mainstay of war by Galileo’s time. Having become more sophisticated and mobile, gunners needed instruments to help them coordinate and calculate their fire. As such, between 1595 and 1598, Galileo devised an improved geometric and military compass for use by gunners and surveyors.

During the 16th century, Aristotelian physics was still the predominant way of explaining the behavior of bodies near the Earth. For example, it was believed that heavy bodies sought their natural place of rest – i.e at the center of things. As a result, no means existed to explain the behavior of pendulums, where a heavy body suspended from a rope would swing back and forth and not seek rest in the middle.

The Sector, a military/geometric compass designed by Galileo Galilei. Credit:
The Sector, a military/geometric compass designed by Galileo Galilei. Credit: chsi.harvard.edu

Already, Galileo had conducted experiments that demonstrated that heavier bodies did not fall faster than lighter ones – another belief consistent with Aristotelian theory. In addition, he also demonstrated that objects thrown into the air travel in parabolic arcs. Based on this and his fascination with the back and forth motion of a suspended weight, he began to research pendulums in 1588.

In 1602, he explained his observations in a letter to a friend, in which he described the principle of isochronism. According to Galileo, this principle asserted that the time it takes for the pendulum to swing is not linked to the arc of the pendulum, but rather the pendulum’s length. Comparing two pendulum’s of similar length, Galileo demonstrated that they would swing at the same speed, despite being pulled at different lengths.

According to Vincenzo Vivian, one of Galileo’s contemporaries, it was in 1641 while under house arrest that Galileo created a design for a pendulum clock. Unfortunately, being blind at the time, he was unable to complete it before his death in 1642. As a result, Christiaan Huygens’ publication of Horologrium Oscillatorium in 1657 is recognized as the first recorded proposal for a pendulum clock.

Death and Legacy:

Galileo died on January 8th, 1642, at the age of 77, due to fever and heart palpitations that had taken a toll on his health. The Grand Duke of Tuscany, Ferdinando II, wished to bury him in the main body of the Basilica of Santa Croce, next to the tombs of his father and other ancestors, and to erect a marble mausoleum in his honor.

Tomb of Galileo Galilei in the Santa Croce Basilica in Florence, Italy. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/stanthejeep
Tomb of Galileo Galilei in the Santa Croce Basilica in Florence, Italy. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/stanthejeep

However, Pope Urban VIII objected on the basis that Galileo had been condemned by the Church, and his body was instead buried in a small room next to the novice’s chapel in the Basilica. However, after his death, the controversy surrounding his works and heliocentricm subsided, and the Inquisitions ban on his writing’s was lifted in 1718.

In 1737, his body was exhumed and reburied in the main body of the Basilica after a monument had been erected in his honor. During the exhumation, three fingers and a tooth were removed from his remains. One of these fingers, the middle finger from Galileo’s right hand, is currently on exhibition at the Museo Galileo in Florence, Italy.

In 1741, Pope Benedict XIV authorized the publication of an edition of Galileo’s complete scientific works which included a mildly censored version of the Dialogue. In 1758, the general prohibition against works advocating heliocentrism was removed from the Index of prohibited books, although the specific ban on uncensored versions of the Dialogue and Copernicus’s De Revolutionibus orbium coelestium (“On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres“) remained.

All traces of official opposition to heliocentrism by the church disappeared in 1835 when works that espoused this view were finally dropped from the Index. And in 1939, Pope Pius XII described Galileo as being among the “most audacious heroes of research… not afraid of the stumbling blocks and the risks on the way, nor fearful of the funereal monuments”.

 A bust of Galileo at the Galileo Museum in Florence, Italy. The museum is displaying recovered parts of his body. Credit Kathryn Cook for The New York Times
A bust of Galileo at the Museo Galileo in Florence, Italy, where recovered parts of his body and many of his possessions are on display. Credit: NYT/Kathryn Cook

On October 31st, 1992, Pope John Paul II expressed regret for how the Galileo affair was handled, and issued a declaration acknowledging the errors committed by the Catholic Church tribunal. The affair had finally been put to rest and Galileo exonerated, though certain unclear statements issued by Pope Benedict XVI have led to renewed controversy and interest in recent years.

Alas, when it comes to the birth of modern science and those who helped create it, Galileo’s contributions are arguably unmatched. According to Stephen Hawking and Albert Einstein, Galileo was the father of modern science, his discoveries and investigations doing more to dispel the prevailing mood of superstition and dogma than anyone else in his time.

These include the discovery of craters and mountains on the Moon, the discovery of the four largest moons of Jupiter (Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto), the existence and nature of Sunspots, and the phases of Venus. These discoveries, combined with his logical and energetic defense of the Copernican model, made a lasting impact on astronomy and forever changed the way people look at the universe.

Galileo’s theoretical and experimental work on the motions of bodies, along with the largely independent work of Kepler and René Descartes, was a precursor of the classical mechanics developed by Sir Isaac Newton. His work with pendulums and time-keeping also previewed the work of Christiaan Huygens and the development of the pendulum clock, the most accurate timepiece of its day.

The 25 Euro coin minted for the 2009 International Year of Astronomy, showing Galileo on the obverse. Credit: coinnews.net
The 25 coin minted for the 2009 International Year of Astronomy, showing Galileo on the obverse. Credit: coinnews.net

Galileo also put forward the basic principle of relativity, which states that the laws of physics are the same in any system that is moving at a constant speed in a straight line. This remains true, regardless of the system’s particular speed or direction, thus proving that there is no absolute motion or absolute rest. This principle provided the basic framework for Newton’s laws of motion and is central to Einstein’s special theory of relativity.

The United Nations chose 2009 to be the International Year of Astronomy, a global celebration of astronomy and its contributions to society and culture. The year 2009 was selected in part because it was the four-hundredth anniversary of Galileo first viewing the heavens with his a telescope he built himself.

A commemorative €25 coin was minted for the occasion, with the inset on the obverse side showing Galileo’s portrait and telescope, as well as one of his first drawings of the surface of the moon. In the silver circle that surrounds it, pictures of other telescopes – Isaac Newton’s Telescope, the observatory in Kremsmünster Abbey, a modern telescope, a radio telescope and a space telescope – are also shown.

Other scientific endeavors and principles are named after Galileo, including the NASA Galileo spacecraft, which was the first spacecraft to enter orbit around Jupiter. Operating from 1989 to 2003, the mission consisted of an orbiter that observed the Jovian system, and an atmospheric probe that made the first measurements of Jupiter’s atmosphere.

This mission found evidence of subsurface oceans on Europa, Ganymede and Callisto, and  revealed the intensity of volcanic activity on Io. In 2003, the spacecraft was crashed into Jupiter’s atmosphere to avoid contamination of any of Jupiter’s moons.

The European Space Agency (ESA) is also developing a global satellite navigation system named Galileo. And in classical mechanics, the transformation between inertial systems is known as “Galilean Transformation“, which is denoted by the non-SI unit of acceleration Gal (sometimes known as the Galileo). Asteroid 697 Galilea is also named in his honor.

Yes, the sciences and humanity as a whole owes a great dept to Galileo. And as time goes on, and space exploration continues, it is likely we will continue to repay that debt by naming future missions – and perhaps even features on the Galilean Moons, should we ever settle there – after him. Seems like a small recompense for ushering in the age of modern science, no?

Universe Today has many interesting articles on Galileo, include the Galilean moons, Galileo’s inventions, and Galileo’s telescope.

For more information, check out the the Galileo Project and Galileo’s biography.

Astronomy Cast has an episode on choosing and using a telescope, and one which deals with the Galileo Spacecraft.

The Moon

This photo of the Moon was taken on October 2, 2011 in Angera, Lombardy, IT. Credit: Milo. Click image to see on Flickr.
This photo of the Moon was taken on October 2, 2011 in Angera, Lombardy, IT. Credit: Milo.

Look up in the night sky. On a clear night, if you’re lucky, you’ll catch a glimpse of the Moon shining in all it’s glory. As Earth‘s only satellite, the Moon has orbited our planet for over three and a half billion years. There has never been a time when human beings haven’t been able to look up at the sky and see the Moon looking back at them.

As a result, it has played a vital role in the mythological and astrological traditions of every human culture. A number of cultures saw it as a deity while others believed that its movements could help them to predict omens. But it is only in modern times that the true nature and origins of the Moon, not to mention the influence it has on planet Earth, have come to be understood.

Size, Mass and Orbit:

With a mean radius of 1737 km and a mass of 7.3477 x 10²² kg, the Moon is 0.273 times the size of Earth and 0.0123 as massive. Its size, relative to Earth, makes it quite large for a satellite – second only to Charon‘s size relative to Pluto. With a mean density of 3.3464 g/cm³, it is 0.606 times as dense as Earth, making it the second densest moon in our Solar System (after Io). Last, it has a surface gravity equivalent to 1.622 m/s2, which is 0.1654 times, or 17%, the Earth standard (g).

The Moon’s orbit has a minor eccentricity of 0.0549, and orbits our planet at a distance of between 356,400-370,400 km at perigee and 404,000-406,700 km at apogee. This gives it an average distance (semi-major axis) of 384,399 km, or 0.00257 AU. The Moon has an orbital period of 27.321582 days (27 d 7 h 43.1 min), and is tidally-locked with our planet, which means the same face is always pointed towards Earth.

Structure and Composition:

Much like Earth, the Moon has a differentiated structure that includes an inner core, an outer core, a mantle, and a crust. It’s core is a solid iron-rich sphere that measures 240 km (150 mi) across, and it surrounded by a outer core that is primarily made of liquid iron and which has a radius of roughly 300 km (190 mi).

Around the core is a partially molten boundary layer with a radius of about 500 km (310 mi). This structure is thought to have developed through the fractional crystallization of a global magma ocean shortly after the Moon’s formation 4.5 billion years ago. Crystallization of this magma ocean would have created a mantle rich in magnesium and iron nearer to the top, with minerals like olivine, clinopyroxene, and orthopyroxene sinking lower.

The mantle is also composed of igneous rock that is rich in magnesium and iron, and geochemical mapping has indicated that the mantle is more iron rich than Earth’s own mantle. The surrounding crust is estimated to be 50 km (31 mi) thick on average, and is also composed of igneous rock.

The Moon is the second densest satellite in the Solar System after Io. However, the inner core of the Moon is small, at around 20% of its total radius. Its composition is not well constrained, but it is probably a metallic iron alloy with a small amount of sulfur and nickel and analyses of the Moon’s time-variable rotation indicate that it is at least partly molten.

Artist concept illustration of the internal structure of the moon. Credit: NOAJ
Artist concept illustration of the internal structure of the moon. Credit: NOAJ

The presence of water has also been confirmed on the Moon, the majority of which is located at the poles in permanently-shadowed craters, and possibly also in reservoirs located beneath the lunar surface. The widely accepted theory is that most of the water was created through the Moon’s interaction of solar wind – where protons collided with oxygen in the lunar dust to create H²O – while the rest was deposited by cometary impacts.

Surface Features:

The geology of the Moon (aka. selenology) is quite different from that of Earth. Since the Moon lacks a significant atmosphere, it does not experience weather – hence there is no wind erosion. Similarly, since it lacks liquid water, there is also no erosion caused by flowing water on its surface. Because of its small size and lower gravity, the Moon cooled more rapidly after forming, and does not experience tectonic plate activity.

Instead, the complex geomorphology of the lunar surface is caused by a combination of processes, particularly impact cratering and volcanoes. Together, these forces have created a lunar landscape that is characterized by impact craters, their ejecta, volcanoes, lava flows, highlands, depressions, wrinkle ridges and grabens.

The most distinctive aspect of the Moon is the contrast between its bright and dark zones. The lighter surfaces are known as the “lunar highlands” while the darker plains are called maria (derived from the Latin mare, for “sea”). The highlands are made of igneous rock that is predominately composed of feldspar, but also contains trace amounts of magnesium, iron, pyroxene, ilmenite, magnetite, and olivine.

LROC Wide Angle Camera (WAC) mosaic of the lunar South Pole region, width ~600 km. Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University.
LROC Wide Angle Camera (WAC) mosaic of the lunar South Pole region, width ~600 km. Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University.

Mare regions, in contrast, are formed from basalt (i.e. volcanic) rock. The maria regions often coincide with the “lowlands,” but it is important to note that the lowlands (such as within the South Pole-Aitken basin) are not always covered by maria. The highlands are older than the visible maria, and hence are more heavily cratered.

Other features include rilles, which are long, narrow depressions that resemble channels. These generally fall into one of three categories: sinuous rilles, which follow meandering paths; arcuate rilles, which have a smooth curve; and linear rilles, which follow straight paths. These features are often the result of the formation of localized lava tubes that have since cooled and collapsed, and can be traced back to their source (old volcanic vents or lunar domes).

Lunar domes are another feature that is related to volcanic activity. When relatively viscous, possibly silica-rich lava erupts from local vents, it forms shield volcanoes that are referred to as lunar domes. These wide, rounded, circular features have gentle slopes, typically measure 8-12 km in diameter and rise to an elevation of a few hundred meters at their midpoint.

Wrinkle ridges are features created by compressive tectonic forces within the maria. These features represent buckling of the surface and form long ridges across parts of the maria. Grabens are tectonic features that form under extension stresses and which are structurally composed of two normal faults, with a down-dropped block between them. Most grabens are found within the lunar maria near the edges of large impact basins.

Rima Ariadaeus as photographed from Apollo 10. The crater to the south of the rille in the left half of the image is Silberschlag. The dark patch at the top right is the floor of the crater Boscovich. Credit: NASA
Rima Ariadaeus as photographed from Apollo 10. The crater to the south of the rille in the left half of the image is Silberschlag. The dark patch at the top right is the floor of the crater Boscovich. Credit: NASA

Impact craters are the Moon’s most common feature, and are created when a solid body (an asteroid or comet) collides with the surface at a high velocity. The kinetic energy of the impact creates a compression shock wave that creates a depression, followed by a rarefaction wave that propels most of the ejecta out of the crater, and then a rebounds to form a central peak.

These craters range in size from tiny pits to the immense South Pole–Aitken Basin, which has a diameter of nearly 2,500 km and a depth of 13 km. In general, the lunar history of impact cratering follows a trend of decreasing crater size with time. In particular, the largest impact basins were formed during the early periods, and these were successively overlaid by smaller craters.

There are estimated to be roughly 300,000 craters wider than 1 km (0.6 mi) on the Moon’s near side alone. Some of these are named for scholars, scientists, artists and explorers. The lack of an atmosphere, weather and recent geological processes mean that many of these craters are well-preserved.

Another feature of the lunar surface is the presence of regolith (aka. Moon dust, lunar soil). Created by billions of years of collisions by asteroids and comets, this fine grain of crystallized dust covers much of the lunar surface. The regolith contains rocks, fragments of minerals from the original bedrock, and glassy particles formed during the impacts.

Bootprint in the lunar regolith left behing by the Apollo 11 crew. Credit: NASA
The historic boot print left behind by the Apollo 11 crew in the lunar regolith. Credit: NASA

The chemical composition of the regolith varies according to its location. Whereas the regolith in the highlands is rich in aluminum and silica, the regolith in the maria is rich in iron and magnesium and is silica-poor, as are the basaltic rocks from which it is formed.

Geological studies of the Moon are based on a combination of Earth-based telescope observations, measurements from orbiting spacecraft, lunar samples, and geophysical data. A few locations were sampled directly during the Apollo missions in the late 1960s and early 1970s, which returned approximately 380 kilograms (838 lb) of lunar rock and soil to Earth, as well as several missions of the Soviet Luna programme.


Much like Mercury, the Moon has a tenuous atmosphere (known as an exosphere), which results in severe temperature variations. These range from  -153°C to 107°C on average, though temperatures as low as -249°C have been recorded. Measurements from NASA’s LADEE have mission determined the exosphere is mostly made up of helium, neon and argon.

The helium and neon are the result of solar wind while the argon comes from the natural, radioactive decay of potassium in the Moon’s interior. There is also evidence of frozen water existing in permanently shadowed craters, and potentially below the soil itself. The water may have been blown in by the solar wind or deposited by comets.


Several theories have been proposed for the formation of the Moon. These include the fission of the Moon from the Earth’s crust through centrifugal force, the Moon being a preformed object that was captured by Earth’s gravity, and the Earth and Moon co-forming together in the primordial accretion disk. The estimated age of the Moon also ranges from it being formed 4.40-4.45 billion years ago to 4.527 ± 0.010 billion years ago, roughly  30–50 million years after the formation of the Solar System.

The prevailing hypothesis today is that the Earth-Moon system formed as a result of an impact between the newly-formed proto-Earth and a Mars-sized object (named Theia) roughly 4.5 billion years ago. This impact would have blasted material from both objects into orbit, where it eventually accreted to form the Moon.

This has become the most accepted hypothesis for several reasons. For one, such impacts were common in the early Solar System, and computer simulations modelling the impact are consistent with the measurements of the Earth-Moon system’s angular momentum, as well as the small size of the lunar core.

In addition, examinations of various meteorites show that other inner Solar System bodies (such as Mars and Vesta) have very different oxygen and tungsten isotopic compositions to Earth. In contrast, examinations of the lunar rocks brought back by the Apollo missions show that Earth and the Moon have nearly identical isotopic compositions.

This is the most compelling evidence suggesting that the Earth and the Moon have a common origin.

Relationship to Earth:

The Moon makes a complete orbit around Earth with respect to the fixed stars about once every 27.3 days (its sidereal period). However, because Earth is moving in its orbit around the Sun at the same time, it takes slightly longer for the Moon to show the same phase to Earth, which is about 29.5 days (its synodic period). The presence of the Moon in orbit influences conditions here on Earth in a number of ways.

The most immediate and obvious are the ways its gravity pulls on Earth – aka. it’s tidal effects. The result of this is an elevated sea level, which are commonly referred to as ocean tides. Because Earth spins about 27 times faster than the Moon moves around it, the bulges are dragged along with Earth’s surface faster than the Moon moves, rotating around Earth once a day as it spins on its axis.

The ocean tides are magnified by other effects, such as frictional coupling of water to Earth’s rotation through the ocean floors, the inertia of water’s movement, ocean basins that get shallower near land, and oscillations between different ocean basins. The gravitational attraction of the Sun on Earth’s oceans is almost half that of the Moon, and their gravitational interplay is responsible for spring and neap tides.

Gravitational coupling between the Moon and the bulge nearest the Moon acts as a torque on Earth’s rotation, draining angular momentum and rotational kinetic energy from Earth’s spin. In turn, angular momentum is added to the Moon’s orbit, accelerating it, which lifts the Moon into a higher orbit with a longer period.

As a result of this, the distance between Earth and Moon is increasing, and Earth’s spin is slowing down. Measurements from lunar ranging experiments with laser reflectors (which were left behind during the Apollo missions) have found that the Moon’s distance to Earth increases by 38 mm (1.5 in) per year.

This speeding and slowing of Earth and the Moon’s rotation will eventually result in a mutual tidal locking between the Earth and Moon, similar to what Pluto and Charon experience. However, such a scenario is likely to take billions of years, and the Sun is expected to have become a red giant and engulf Earth long before that.

The lunar surface also experiences tides of around 10 cm (4 in) amplitude over 27 days, with two components: a fixed one due to Earth (because they are in synchronous rotation) and a varying component from the Sun. The cumulative stress caused by these tidal forces produces moonquakes. Despite being less common and weaker than earthquakes, moonquakes can last longer (one hour) since there is no water to damp out the vibrations.

Another way the Moon effects life on Earth is through occultation (i.e. eclipses). These only happen when the Sun, the Moon, and Earth are in a straight line, and take one of two forms – a lunar eclipse and a solar eclipse. A lunar eclipse occurs when a full Moon passes behind Earth’s shadow (umbra) relative to the Sun, which causes it to darken and take on a reddish appearance (aka. a “Blood Moon” or “Sanguine Moon”.)

A solar eclipse occurs during a new Moon, when the Moon is between the Sun and Earth. Since they are the same apparent size in the sky, the moon can either partially block the Sun (annular eclipse) or fully block it (total eclipse). In the case of a total eclipse, the Moon completely covers the disc of the Sun and the solar corona becomes visible to the naked eye.

The geometry that creates a total lunar eclipse. Credit: NASA
The geometry that creates a total lunar eclipse. Credit: NASA

Because the Moon’s orbit around Earth is inclined by about 5° to the orbit of Earth around the Sun, eclipses do not occur at every full and new moon. For an eclipse to occur, the Moon must be near the intersection of the two orbital planes.The periodicity and recurrence of eclipses of the Sun by the Moon, and of the Moon by Earth, is described by the “Saros Cycle“, which is a period of approximately 18 years.

History of Observation:

Human beings have been observing the Moon since prehistoric times, and understanding the Moon’s cycles was one of the earliest developments in astronomy. The earliest examples of this comes from the 5th century BCE, when Babylonian astronomers had recorded the 18-year Satros cycle of lunar eclipses, and Indian astronomers had described the Moon’s monthly elongation.

The ancient Greek philosopher Anaxagoras (ca. 510 – 428 BCE) reasoned that the Sun and Moon were both giant spherical rocks, and the latter reflected the light of the former. In Aristotle’s “On the Heavens“, which he wrote in 350 BCE, the Moon was said to mark the boundary between the spheres of the mutable elements (earth, water, air and fire), and the heavenly stars – an influential philosophy that would dominate for centuries.

In the 2nd century BCE, Seleucus of Seleucia correctly theorized that tides were due to the attraction of the Moon, and that their height depends on the Moon’s position relative to the Sun. In the same century, Aristarchus computed the size and distance of the Moon from Earth, obtaining a value of about twenty times the radius of Earth for the distance. These figures were greatly improved by Ptolemy (90–168 BCE), who’s values of a mean distance of 59 times Earth’s radius and a diameter of 0.292 Earth diameters were close to the correct values (60 and 0.273 respectively).

By the 4th century BCE, the Chinese astronomer Shi Shen gave instructions for predicting solar and lunar eclipses. By the time of the Han Dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE), astronomers recognized that moonlight was reflected from the Sun, and Jin Fang (78–37 BC) postulated that the Moon was spherical in shape.

In 499 CE, the Indian astronomer Aryabhata mentioned in his Aryabhatiya that reflected sunlight is the cause of the shining of the Moon. The astronomer and physicist Alhazen (965–1039) found that sunlight was not reflected from the Moon like a mirror, but that light was emitted from every part of the Moon in all directions.

Shen Kuo (1031–1095) of the Song dynasty created an allegory to explain the waxing and waning phases of the Moon. According to Shen, it was comparable to a round ball of reflective silver that, when doused with white powder and viewed from the side, would appear to be a crescent.

During the Middle Ages, before the invention of the telescope, the Moon was increasingly recognized as a sphere, though many believed that it was “perfectly smooth”. In keeping with medieval astronomy, which combined Aristotle’s theories of the universe with Christian dogma, this view would later be challenged as part of the Scientific Revolution (during the 16th and 17th century) where the Moon and other planets would come to be seen as being similar to Earth.

Using a telescope of his own design, Galileo Galilei drew one of the first telescopic drawings of the Moon in 1609, which he included in his book Sidereus Nuncius (“Starry Messenger). From his observations, he noted that the Moon was not smooth, but had mountains and craters. These observations, coupled with observations of moons orbiting Jupiter, helped him to advance the heliocentric model of the universe.

Telescopic mapping of the Moon followed, which led to the lunar features being mapped in detail and named. The names assigned by Italian astronomers Giovannia Battista Riccioli and Francesco Maria Grimaldi are still in use today. The lunar map and book on lunar features created by German astronomers Wilhelm Beer and Johann Heinrich Mädler between 1834 and 1837 were the first accurate trigonometric study of lunar features, and included the heights of more than a thousand mountains.

Lunar craters, first noted by Galileo, were thought to be volcanic until the 1870s, when English astronomer Richard Proctor proposed that they were formed by collisions. This view gained support throughout the remainder of the 19th century; and by the early 20th century, led to the development of lunar stratigraphy – part of the growing field of astrogeology.


With the beginning of the Space Age in the mid-20th century, the ability to physically explore the Moon became possible for the first time. And with the onset of the Cold War, both the Soviet and American space programs became locked in an ongoing effort to reach the Moon first. This initially consisted of sending probes on flybys and landers to the surface, and culminated with astronauts making manned missions.

The Soviet Luna 1 Robotic space probe. Credit: RIA Novosti/ Alexander Mokletsov/Public Domain
The Soviet Luna 1 Robotic space probe. Credit: RIA Novosti/ Alexander Mokletsov/Public Domain

Exploration of the Moon began in earnest with the Soviet Luna program. Beginning in earnest in 1958, the programmed suffered the loss of three unmanned probes. But by 1959, the Soviets managed to successfully dispatch fifteen robotic spacecraft to the Moon and accomplished many firsts in space exploration. This included the first human-made objects to escape Earth’s gravity (Luna 1), the first human-made object to impact the lunar surface (Luna 2), and the first photographs of the far side of the Moon (Luna 3).

Between 1959 and 1979, the program also managed to make the first successful soft landing on the Moon (Luna 9), and the first unmanned vehicle to orbit the Moon (Luna 10) – both in 1966. Rock and soil samples were brought back to Earth by three Luna sample return missions – Luna 16 (1970), Luna 20 (1972), and Luna 24 (1976).

Two pioneering robotic rovers landed on the Moon – Luna 17 (1970) and Luna 21 (1973) – as a part of Soviet Lunokhod program. Running from 1969 to 1977, this program was primarily designed to provide support for the planned Soviet manned moon missions. But with the cancellation of the Soviet manned moon program, they were instead used as remote-controlled robots to photograph and explore the lunar surface.

NASA began launching probes to provide information and support for an eventual Moon landing in the early 60s. This took the form of the Ranger program, which ran from 1961 – 1965 and produced the first close-up pictures of the lunar landscape. It was followed by the Lunar Orbiter program which produced maps of the entire Moon between 1966-67, and the Surveyor program which sent robotic landers to the surface between 1966-68.

In 1969, astronaut Neil Armstrong made history by becoming the first person to walk on the Moon. As the commander of the American mission Apollo 11, he first sett foot on the Moon at 02:56 UTC on 21 July 1969. This represented the culmination of the Apollo program (1969-1972), which sought to send astronauts to the lunar surface to conduct research and be the first human beings to set foot on a celestial body other than Earth.

The Apollo 11 to 17 missions (save for Apollo 13, which aborted its planned lunar landing) sent a total of 13 astronauts to the lunar surface and returned 380.05 kilograms (837.87 lb) of lunar rock and soil. Scientific instrument packages were also installed on the lunar surface during all the Apollo landings. Long-lived instrument stations, including heat flow probes, seismometers, and magnetometers, were installed at the Apollo 12, 14, 15, 16, and 17 landing sites, some of which are still operational.

After the Moon Race was over, there was a lull in lunar missions. However, by the 1990s, many more countries became involve in space exploration. In 1990, Japan became the third country to place a spacecraft into lunar orbit with its Hiten spacecraft, an orbiter which released the smaller Hagoroma probe.

In 1994, the U.S. sent the joint Defense Department/NASA spacecraft Clementine to lunar orbit to obtain the first near-global topographic map of the Moon and the first global multispectral images of the lunar surface. This was followed in 1998 by the Lunar Prospector mission, whose instruments indicated the presence of excess hydrogen at the lunar poles, which is likely to have been caused by the presence of water ice in the upper few meters of the regolith within permanently shadowed craters.

Mosaic of the Chang'e-3 moon lander and the lunar surface taken by the camera on China’s Yutu moon rover from a position south of the lander during Lunar Day 3. Note the landing ramp and rover tracks at left. Credit: CNSA/SASTIND/Xinhua/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer
Mosaic of the Chang’e-3 moon lander and the lunar surface, taken by the Yutu rover during Lunar Day 3. Credit: CNSA/SASTIND/Xinhua/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer

Since the year 2000, exploration of the moon has intensified, with a growing number of parties becoming involved. The ESA’s SMART-1 spacecraft, the second ion-propelled spacecraft ever created, made the first detailed survey of chemical elements on the lunar surface while in orbit from November 15th, 2004, until its lunar impact on September 3rd, 2006.

China has pursued an ambitious program of lunar exploration under their Chang’e program. This began with Chang’e 1, which successfully obtained a full image map of the Moon during its sixteen month orbit (November 5th, 2007 – March 1st, 2009) of the Moon. This was followed in October of 2010 with the Chang’e 2 spacecraft, which mapped the Moon at a higher resolution before performing a flyby of asteroid 4179 Toutatis in December of 2012, then heading off into deep space.

On 14 December 2013, Chang’e 3 improved upon its orbital mission predecessors by landing a lunar lander onto the Moon’s surface, which in turn deployed a lunar rover named Yutu (literally “Jade Rabbit”). In so doing, Chang’e 3 made the first soft lunar landing since Luna 24 in 1976, and the first lunar rover mission since Lunokhod 2 in 1973.

Between October 4th, 2007, and June 10th, 2009, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency‘s (JAXA) Kaguya (“Selene”) mission – a lunar orbiter fitted with a high-definition video camera and two small radio-transmitter satellites – obtained lunar geophysics data and took the first high-definition movies from beyond Earth orbit.

The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) first lunar mission, Chandrayaan I, orbited the Moon between November 2008 and August 2009 and created a high resolution chemical, mineralogical and photo-geological map of the lunar surface, as well as confirming the presence of water molecules in lunar soil. A second mission was planned for 2013 in collaboration with Roscosmos, but was cancelled.

NASA has also been busy in the new millennium. In 2009, they co-launched the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) and the Lunar CRater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) impactor. LCROSS completed its mission by making a widely observed impact in the crater Cabeus on October 9th, 2009, while the LRO is currently obtaining precise lunar altimetry and high-resolution imagery.

Two NASA Gravity Recovery And Interior Library (GRAIL) spacecraft began orbiting the Moon in January 2012 as part of a mission to learn more about the Moon’s internal structure.

Upcoming lunar missions include Russia’s Luna-Glob an unmanned lander with a set of seismometers, and an orbiter based on its failed Martian Fobos-Grunt mission. Privately funded lunar exploration has also been promoted by the Google Lunar X Prize, which was announced on September 13th, 2007, and offers US$20 million to anyone who can land a robotic rover on the Moon and meet other specified criteria.

Under the terms of the Outer Space Treaty, the Moon remains free to all nations to explore for peaceful purposes. As our efforts to explore space continue, plans to create a lunar base and possibly even a permanent settlement may become a reality. Looking to the distant future, it wouldn’t be far fetched at all to imagine native-born humans living on the Moon, perhaps known as Lunarians (though I imagine Lunies will be more popular!)

We have many interesting articles about the Moon here at Universe Today. Below is a list that covers just about everything we know about it today. We hope you find what you are looking for:

Planet Earth

Blue marble Earth. Image credit: NASA

In addition to being the birthplace of humanity and the cradle of human civilization, Earth is the only known planet in our Solar System that is capable of sustaining life. As a terrestrial planet, Earth is located within the Inner Solar System between between Venus and Mars (which are also terrestrial planets). This place Earth in a prime location with regards to our Sun’s Habitable Zone.

Earth has a number of nicknames, including the Blue Planet, Gaia, Terra, and “the world” – which reflects its centrality to the creation stories of every single human culture that has ever existed. But the most remarkable thing about our planet is its diversity. Not only are there an endless array of plants, animals, avians, insects and mammals, but they exist in every terrestrial environment. So how exactly did Earth come to be the fertile, life-giving place we all know and love?

Continue reading “Planet Earth”

Who Was Nicolaus Copernicus?

Astronomer Copernicus, or Conversations with God, by Matejko. Credit: frombork.art.pl/pl/

When it comes to understanding our place in the universe, few scientists have had more of an impact than Nicolaus Copernicus. The creator of the Copernican Model of the universe (aka. heliocentrism), his discovery that the Earth and other planets revolved the Sun triggered an intellectual revolution that would have far-reaching consequences.

In addition to playing a major part in the Scientific Revolution of the 17th and 18th centuries, his ideas changed the way people looked at the heavens, the planets, and would have a profound influence over men like Johannes Kepler, Galileo Galilei, Sir Isaac Newton and many others. In short, the “Copernican Revolution” helped to usher in the era of modern science.

Copernicus’ Early Life:

Copernicus was born on February 19th, 1473 in the city of Torun (Thorn) in the Crown of the Kingdom of Poland. The youngest of four children to a well-to-do merchant family, Copernicus and his siblings were raised in the Catholic faith and had many strong ties to the Church.

His older brother Andreas would go on to become an Augustinian canon, while his sister, Barbara, became a Benedictine nun and (in her final years) the prioress of a convent. Only his sister Katharina ever married and had children, which Copernicus looked after until the day he died. Copernicus himself never married or had any children of his own.

Nicolaus Copernicus portrait from Town Hall in Torun (Thorn), 1580. Credit: frombork.art.pl
Nicolaus Copernicus portrait from Town Hall in Torun (Thorn), 1580. Credit: frombork.art.pl

Born in a predominately Germanic city and province, Copernicus acquired fluency in both German and Polish at a young age, and would go on to learn Greek and Italian during the course of his education. Given that it was the language of academia in his time, as well as the Catholic Church and the Polish royal court, Copernicus also became fluent in Latin, which the majority of his surviving works are written in.

Copernicus’ Education:

In 1483, Copernicus’ father (whom he was named after) died, whereupon his maternal uncle, Lucas Watzenrode the Younger, began to oversee his education and career. Given the connections he maintained with Poland’s leading intellectual figures, Watzenrode would ensure that Copernicus had  great deal of exposure to some of the intellectual figures of his time.

Although little information on his early childhood is available, Copernicus’ biographers believe that his uncle sent him to St. John’ School in Torun, where he himself had been a master. Later, it is believed that he attended the Cathedral School at Wloclawek (located 60 km south-east Torun on the Vistula River), which prepared pupils for entrance to the University of Krakow – Watzenrode’s own Alma mater.

In 1491, Copernicus began his studies in the Department of Arts at the University of Krakow. However, he quickly became fascinated by astronomy, thanks to his exposure to many contemporary philosophers who taught or were associated with the Krakow School of Mathematics and Astrology, which was in its heyday at the time.

A comparison of the geocentric and heliocentric models of the universe. Credit: history.ucsb.edu
A comparison of the geocentric and heliocentric models of the universe. Credit: history.ucsb.edu

Copernicus’ studies provided him with a thorough grounding in mathematical-astronomical knowledge, as well as the philosophy and natural-science writings of Aristotle, Euclid, and various humanist writers. It was while at Krakow that Copernicus began collecting a large library on astronomy, and where he began his analysis of the logical contradictions in the two most popular systems of astronomy.

These models – Aristotle’s theory of homocentric spheres, and Ptolemy’s mechanism of eccentrics and epicycles – were both geocentric in nature. Consistent with classical astronomy and physics, they espoused that the Earth was at the center of the universe, and that the Sun, the Moon, the other planets, and the stars all revolved around it.

Before earning a degree, Copernicus left Krakow (ca. 1495) to travel to the court of his uncle Watzenrode in Warmia, a province in northern Poland. Having been elevated to the position of Prince-Bishop of Warmia in 1489, his uncle sought to place Copernicus in the Warmia canonry. However, Copernicus’ installation was delayed, which prompted his uncle to send him and his brother to study in Italy to further their ecclesiastic careers.

In 1497, Copernicus arrived in Bologna and began studying at the Bologna University of Jurists’. While there, he studied canon law, but devoted himself primarily to the study of the humanities and astronomy. It was also while at Bologna that he met the famous astronomer Domenico Maria Novara da Ferrara and became his disciple and assistant.

The Geocentric View of the Solar System
An illustration of the Ptolemaic geocentric system by Portuguese cosmographer and cartographer Bartolomeu Velho, 1568. Credit: bnf.fr

Over time, Copernicus’ began to feel a growing sense of doubt towards the Aristotelian and Ptolemaic models of the universe. These included the problematic explanations arising from the inconsistent motion of the planets (i.e. retrograde motion, equants, deferents and epicycles), and the fact that Mars and Jupiter appeared to be larger in the night sky at certain times than at others.

Hoping to resolve this, Copernicus used his time at the university to study Greek and Latin authors (i.e. Pythagoras, Cicero, Pliny the Elder, Plutarch, Heraclides and Plato) as well as the fragments of historic information the university had on ancient astronomical, cosmological and calendar systems – which included other (predominantly Greek and Arab) heliocentric theories.

In 1501, Copernicus moved to Padua, ostensibly to study medicine as part of his ecclesiastical career. Just as he had done at Bologna, Copernicus carried out his appointed studies, but remained committed to his own astronomical research. Between 1501 and 1503, he continued to study ancient Greek texts; and it is believed that it was at this time that his ideas for a new system of astronomy – whereby the Earth itself moved – finally crystallized.

The Copernican Model (aka. Heliocentrism):

In 1503, having finally earned his doctorate in canon law, Copernicus returned to Warmia where he would spend the remaining 40 years of his life. By 1514, he began making his Commentariolus (“Little Commentary”) available for his friends to read. This forty-page manuscript described his ideas about the heliocentric hypothesis, which was based on seven general principles.

These seven principles stated that: Celestial bodies do not all revolve around a single point; the center of Earth is the center of the lunar sphere—the orbit of the moon around Earth; all the spheres rotate around the Sun, which is near the center of the Universe; the distance between Earth and the Sun is an insignificant fraction of the distance from Earth and Sun to the stars, so parallax is not observed in the stars; the stars are immovable – their apparent daily motion is caused by the daily rotation of Earth; Earth is moved in a sphere around the Sun, causing the apparent annual migration of the Sun; Earth has more than one motion; and Earth’s orbital motion around the Sun causes the seeming reverse in direction of the motions of the planets.

Heliocentric Model
Andreas Cellarius’s illustration of the Copernican system, from the Harmonia Macrocosmica (1708). Credit: Public Domain

Thereafter he continued gathering data for a more detailed work, and by 1532, he had come close to completing the manuscript of his magnum opus – De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres). In it, he advanced his seven major arguments, but in more detailed form and with detailed computations to back them up.

However, due to fears that the publication of his theories would lead to condemnation from the church (as well as, perhaps, worries that his theory presented some scientific flaws) he withheld his research until a year before he died. It was only in 1542, when he was near death, that he sent his treatise to Nuremberg to be published.

Copernicus’ Death:

Towards the end of 1542, Copernicus suffered from a brain hemorrhage or stroke which left him paralyzed. On May 24th, 1543, he died at the age of 70 and was reportedly buried in the Frombork Cathedral in Frombork, Poland. It is said that on the day of his death, May 24th 1543 at the age of 70, he was presented with an advance copy of his book, which he smiled upon before passing away.

In 2005, an archaeological team conducted a scan of the floor of Frombork Cathedral, declaring that they had found Copernicus’ remains. Afterwards, a forensic expert from the Polish Police Central Forensic Laboratory used the unearthed skull to reconstruct a face that closely resembled Copernicus’ features. The expert also determined that the skull belonged to a man who had died around age 70 – Copernicus’ age at the time of his death.

These findings were backed up in 2008 when a comparative DNA analysis was made from both the remains and two hairs found in a book Copernicus was known to have owned (Calendarium Romanum Magnum, by Johannes Stoeffler). The DNA results were a match, proving that Copernicus’ body had indeed been found.

Copernicus' 2010 grave in Frombork Cathedral, acknowledging him as the father of heiocentirsm.Credit:
Copernicus’ 2010 grave in Frombork Cathedral, acknowledging him as a church canon and the father of heliocentricism. Credit: Wikipedia/Holger Weinandt

On May 22nd, 2010, Copernicus was given a second funeral in a Mass led by Józef Kowalczyk, the former papal nuncio to Poland and newly named Primate of Poland. Copernicus’ remains were reburied in the same spot in Frombork Cathedral, and a black granite tombstone (shown above) now identifies him as the founder of the heliocentric theory and also a church canon. The tombstone bears a representation of Copernicus’ model of the solar system – a golden sun encircled by six of the planets.

Copernicus’ Legacy:

Despite his fears about his arguments producing scorn and controversy, the publication of his theories resulted in only mild condemnation from religious authorities. Over time, many religious scholars tried to argue against his model, using a combination of Biblical canon, Aristotelian philosophy, Ptolemaic astronomy, and then-accepted notions of physics to discredit the idea that the Earth itself would be capable of motion.

However, within a few generation’s time, Copernicus’ theory became more widespread and accepted, and gained many influential defenders in the meantime. These included Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), who’s investigations of the heavens using the telescope allowed him to resolve what were seen at the time as flaws in the heliocentric model.

These included the relative changes in the appearances of Mars and Jupiter when they are in opposition vs. conjunction to the Earth. Whereas they appear larger to the naked eye than Copernicus’ model suggested they should, Galileo proved that this is an illusion caused by the behavior of light at a distance, and can be resolved with a telescope.

1973 Federal Republic of Germany 5-mark silver coin commemorating 500th anniversary of Copernicus' birth. Credit: Wikipedia/Berlin-George
1973 Federal Republic of Germany 5-mark silver coin commemorating 500th anniversary of Copernicus’ birth. Credit: Wikipedia/Berlin-George

Through the use of the telescope, Galileo also discovered moons orbiting Jupiter, Sunspots, and the imperfections on the Moon’s surface, all of which helped to undermine the notion that the planets were perfect orbs, rather than planets similar to Earth. While Galileo’s advocacy of Copernicus’ theories resulted in his house arrest, others soon followed.

German mathematician and astronomer Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) also helped to refine the heliocentric model with his introduction of elliptical orbits. Prior to this, the heliocentric model still made use of circular orbits, which did not explain why planets orbited the Sun at different speeds at different times. By showing how the planet’s sped up while at certain points in their orbits, and slowed down in others, Kepler resolved this.

In addition, Copernicus’ theory about the Earth being capable of motion would go on to inspire a rethinking of the entire field of physics. Whereas previous ideas of motion depended on an outside force to instigate and maintain it (i.e. wind pushing a sail) Copernicus’ theories helped to inspire the concepts of gravity and inertia. These ideas would be articulated by Sir Isaac Newton, who’s Principia formed the basis of modern physics and astronomy.

Today, Copernicus is honored (along with Johannes Kepler) by the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church (USA) with a feast day on May 23rd. In 2009, the discoverers of chemical element 112 (which had previously been named ununbium) proposed that the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry rename it copernicum (Cn) – which they did in 2011.

Crater Copernicus on the Moon. Mosaic of photos by Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, . Credit: NASA/LRO
Mosaic image of the Copernicus Crater on the Moon, taken by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, . Credit: NASA/LRO

In 1973, on the 500th anniversary of his birthday, the Federal Republic of Germany (aka. West Germany) issued a 5 Mark silver coin (shown above) that bore Copernicus’ name and a representation of the heliocentric universe on one side.

In August of 1972, the Copernicus – an Orbiting Astronomical Observatory created by NASA and the UK’s Science Research Council – was launched to conduct space-based observations. Originally designated OAO-3, the satellite was renamed in 1973 in time for the 500th anniversary of Copernicus’ birth. Operating until February of 1981, Copernicus proved to be the most successful of the OAO missions, providing extensive X-ray and ultraviolet information on stars and discovering several long-period pulsars.

Two craters, one located on the Moon, the other on Mars, are named in Copernicus’ honor. The European Commission and the European Space Agency (ESA) is currently conducting the Copernicus Program. Formerly known as Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES), this program aims at achieving an autonomous, multi-level operational Earth observatory.

On February 19th, 2013, the world celebrated the 540th anniversary of Copernicus’ birthday. Even now, almost five and a half centuries later, he is considered one of the greatest astronomers and scientific minds that ever lived. In addition to revolutionizing the fields of physics, astronomy, and our very concept of the laws of motion, the tradition of modern science itself owes a great debt to this noble scholar who placed the truth above all else.

Universe Today has many interesting articles on ancient astronomy, such as What is the Difference Between the Geocentric and Heliocentric Models of the Solar System.

For more information, you should check out Nicolaus Copernicus, the biography of Nicolaus Copernicus, and Planetary Motion: The History of an Idea That Launched the Scientific Revolution.

Astronomy Cast has an episode on Episode 338: Copernicus.


What Is The Difference Between Asteroids and Meteorites?

Various meteorites from 2008 TC3. Credit: P. Jenniskens, et. al. Click image for full description

Asteroids, meteors, and meteorites … It might be fair to say these rocks from space inspire both wonder and fear among us Earthlings. But knowing a bit more about each of them and how they differ may eliminate some potential misgivings. While all these rocks originate from space, they have different names depending their location — i.e. whether they are hurtling through space or hurtling through the atmosphere and impacting Earth’s surface.

In simplest terms here are the definitions:

Asteroid: a large rocky body in space, in orbit around the Sun.

Meteoroid: much smaller rocks or particles in orbit around the Sun.

Meteor: If a meteoroid enters the Earth’s atmosphere and vaporizes, it becomes a meteor, which is often called a shooting star.

Meteorite: If a small asteroid or large meteoroid survives its fiery passage through the Earth’s atmosphere and lands on Earth’s surface, it is then called a meteorite.

Another related term is bolide, which is a very bright meteor that often explodes in the atmosphere. This can also be called a fireball.

Let’s look at each in more detail:


An artists impression of an asteroid belt. Credit: NASA
An artists impression of an asteroid belt. Credit: NASA

Asteroids are found mainly in the asteroid belt, between Mars and Jupiter. Sometimes their orbits get perturbed or altered and some asteroids end up coming closer to the Sun, and therefore closer to Earth. In addition to the asteroid belt, however, there have been recent discussions among astronomers about the potential existence of large number asteroids in the Kuiper Belt and Oort Cloud. You can read a paper about this concept here, and a good article discussing the topic here.

The asteroid Vesta as seen by the Dawn spacecraft. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCAL/MPS/DLR/IDA
The asteroid Vesta as seen by the Dawn spacecraft. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCAL/MPS/DLR/IDA

Asteroids are sometimes referred to as minor planets or planetoids, but in general, they are rocky bodies that do not have an atmosphere. However, a few have their own moons. Our Solar System contains millions of asteroids, many of which are thought to be the shattered remnants of planetesimals – bodies within the young Sun’s solar nebula that never grew large enough to become planets.

The size of what classifies as an asteroid is not extremely well defined, as an asteroid can range from a few meters wide – like a boulder — to objects that are hundreds of kilometers in diameter. The largest asteroid is asteroid Ceres at about 952 km (592 miles) in diameter, and Ceres is so large that it is also categorized as a dwarf planet.

Most asteroids are made of rock, but as we explore and learn more about them we know that some are composed of metal, mostly nickel and iron. According to NASA, a small portion of the asteroid population may be burned-out comets whose ices have evaporated away and been blown off into space. Recently, astronomers have discovered some asteroids that mimic comets in that gas and dust are emanating from them, and as we mentioned earlier, there appears to be a large number of bodies with asteroid-like compositions but comet-like orbits.

How Often Do Asteroids Hit Earth?

Meteor Crater near Winslow, Arizona. Image credit: NASA.
Meteor Crater near Winslow, Arizona. Image credit: NASA.

While we know that some asteroids pass very close to Earth’s orbit around the Sun, we’ve been lucky in the history of humanity that we haven’t had a large asteroid hit Earth in the past several thousand years. It wasn’t until satellite imagery of Earth became widely available that scientists were able to see evidence of past asteroid impacts.

One of the more famous impact craters on Earth is Meteor Crater in Arizona in the US, which was made by an impact about 50,000 years ago. But there are about 175 known impact around the world – a few are quite large, like Vredefort Crater in South Africa which has an estimated radius of 190 kilometers (118 miles), making it the world’s largest known impact structure on Earth. Another notable impact site is off the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, and is believed to be a record of the event that led to the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. You can see images of some of the most impressive Earth impact craters here.

These days, asteroid impacts are less of a threat. NASA estimates that about once a year an automobile-sized asteroid enters Earth’s atmosphere, creates an impressive fireball and disintegrates before ever reaching the surface. Studies of Earth’s history indicate that about once every 5,000 years or so on average an object the size of a football field hits Earth and causes significant damage. Once every few million years on average an object large enough to cause regional or global disaster impacts Earth. You can find more information about the frequency of impacts in this article from NASA.

Meteors, Meteoroids and Bolides

A bright meteor from September 21, 1994. Credit: John Chumack.
A bright meteor from September 21, 1994. Credit: John Chumack.

Space debris smaller than an asteroid are called meteoroids. A meteoroid is a piece of interplanetary matter that is smaller than an asteroid and frequently are only millimeters in size. Most meteoroids that enter the Earth’s atmosphere are so small that they vaporize completely and never reach the planet’s surface. When they burn up during their descent, they create a beautiful trail of light known as a meteor, sometimes called a shooting star.

Mostly these are harmless, but larger meteors that explode in the atmosphere – sometimes called bolides — can create shockwaves, which can cause problems. In February 2013 a meteor that exploded over Chelyabinsk, Russia shattered windows with its air blast. This meteoroid or bolide was estimated to be 18 meters (59 feet) in diameter. In 1908, a rocky meteoroid less than 100 meters in diameter is believed to have entered the atmosphere over the Tunguska region of Siberia in 1908 and the resulting shockwave knocked down trees for hundreds of square kilometers

How often is Earth hit by meteroids?

Chelyabinsk fireball recorded by a dashcam from Kamensk-Uralsky north of Chelyabinsk where it was still dawn.
Chelyabinsk fireball recorded by a dashcam from Kamensk-Uralsky north of Chelyabinsk where it was still dawn.

Because of the Chelyabinsk meteor in 2013, astronomers have acquired more information about the frequency of larger meteors that hit Earth, and there is now a growing consensus that the Earth gets hit by bigger space rocks more often than we previously thought. You can read more about that concept here.

This video from the B612 Foundation shows a visualization of the location of 26 space rocks that hit Earth between 2000 and 2013, each releasing energy equivalent to some of our most powerful nuclear weapons. The B612 foundation says that a Hiroshima-scale asteroid explosion happens in our atmosphere on average once a year, but many are not detected because they explode high in the atmosphere, or because most of the Earth’s surface is water and even a large percentage of land is fairly uninhabited by humans.

Estimates vary of how much cosmic dust and meteors enter Earth’s atmosphere each day, but range anywhere from 5 to 300 metric tons. Satellite observations suggest that 100-300 metric tons of cosmic dust enter the atmosphere each day. This figure comes from the rate of accumulation in polar ice cores and deep-sea sediments of rare elements linked to cosmic dust, such as iridium and osmium.

But other measurements – which includes meteor radar observations, laser observations and measurements by high altitude aircraft — indicate that the input could be as low as 5 metric ton per day. Read more about this here.

For a documented list of bolide events, you can check out this page from JPL.


A stunning slice of the Glorieta pallasite meteorite cut thin enough to allow light to shine through its many olivine crystals.  Credit: Mike Miller
A stunning slice of the Glorieta pallasite meteorite cut thin enough to allow light to shine through its many olivine crystals. Credit: Mike Miller

If any part of a meteoroid survives the fall through the atmosphere and lands on Earth, it is called a meteorite. Although the vast majority of meteorites are very small, their size can range from about a fraction of a gram (the size of a pebble) to 100 kilograms (220 lbs) or more (the size of a huge, life-destroying boulder). Meteorites smaller than 2mm are classified as micrometeorites.

Meteorites have traditionally been divided into three broad categories, depending on their structure, chemical and isotopic composition and mineralogy. Stony meteorites are rocks, mainly composed of silicate minerals; iron meteorites that are largely composed of metallic iron-nickel; and, stony-iron meteorites that contain large amounts of both metallic and rocky material.

Meteorites have also been found on the Moon and Mars and conversely, scientists have traced the origination of the meteorites found here on Earth to four other bodies: the Moon, Mars, the asteroid 4 Vesta, and the comet Wild 2. Meteorites are the source of a great deal of the knowledge that we have have about the composition of other celestial bodies.

How Often Do Meteorites Hit Earth?

On Feb. 28, 2009, Peter Jenniskens (SETI/NASA), finds his first 2008TC3 meteorite after an 18-mile long journey. "It was an incredible feeling," Jenniskens said. The African Nubian Desert meteorite of Oct 7, 2008 was the first asteroid whose impact with Earth was predicted while still in space approaching Earth. 2008TC3 and Chelyabinsk are part of the released data set. (Credit: NASA/SETI/P.Jenniskens)
On Feb. 28, 2009, Peter Jenniskens (SETI/NASA), finds his first 2008TC3 meteorite after an 18-mile long journey. “It was an incredible feeling,” Jenniskens said. The African Nubian Desert meteorite of Oct 7, 2008 was the first asteroid whose impact with Earth was predicted while still in space approaching Earth. 2008TC3 and Chelyabinsk are part of the released data set. (Credit: NASA/SETI/P.Jenniskens)

According to the Planetary Science Institute, it is estimated that probably 500 meteorites reach the surface of the Earth each year, but less than 10 are recovered. This is because most fall into water (oceans, seas or lakes) or land in remote areas of the Earth that are not accessible, or are just not seen to fall.

You can read more about meteorites that were found from the Chelyabinsk meteor here.


In short, the difference between asteroids and meteors all comes down to a question of location. Asteroids are always found in space. Once it enters an atmosphere, it becomes a meteor, and then a meteorite after it hits the ground. Each are made of the same basic materials – minerals and rock – and each originated in space. The main difference is where they are when they are being observed.

We have many great articles on the subject of asteroids and meteorites here at Universe Today, such as this general information article on asteroids, this article and infographic about the difference between comets, asteroids and meteors, and these articles that deal with Ceres and Vesta. And here are some recent articles about the Chelyabinsk meteor that landed in Russia, as well as a 2 billion-year old Martian meteorite that contains evidence of water on Mars.

There is some good information on a NASA page as well as some great information here on Universe Today and Astronomy Cast.

JPL’s Near Earth Asteroid Office
Planetary Science Institute
NASA: Asteroids
NASA: Meteors

What is Lunar Regolith?

A boot print on the lunar regolith. Credit: NASA.

When you’re walking around on soft ground, do you notice how your feet leave impressions? Perhaps you’ve tracked some of the looser earth in your yard into the house on occasion? If you were to pick up some of these traces – what we refer to as dirt or soil – and examine them beneath a microscope, what would you see?

Essentially, you would be seeing the components of what is known as regolith, which is a collection of particles of dust, soil, broken rock, and other materials found here on Earth. But interestingly enough, this same basic material can be found in other terrestrial environments as well – including the Moon, Mars, other planets, and even asteroids.


The term regolith refers to any layer of material covering solid rock, which can come in the form of dust, soil or broken rock. The word is derived from the combination of two Greek words – rhegos (which means “blanket”) and lithos (which means “rock).


On Earth, regolith takes the form of dirt, soil, sand, and other components that are formed as a result of natural weathering and biological processes. Due to a combination of erosion, alluvial deposits (i.e. moving water deposing sand), volcanic eruptions, or tectonic activity, the material is slowly ground down and laid out over solid bedrock.

central Yilgarn Craton, Western Australia.
Picture of Mt Magnet in the Central Yilgarn Craton in Western Australia, which dates to the Precambrian Era. Credit: geomorphologie.revues.org

It can be made up of clays, silicates, various minerals, groundwater, and organic molecules. Regolith on Earth can vary from being essentially absent to being hundreds of meters thick. Its can also be very young (in the form of ash, alluvium, or lava rock that was just deposited) to hundreds of millions of years old (regolith dating to the Precambrian age occurs in parts of Australia).

On Earth, the presence of regolith is one of the important factors for most life, since few plants can grow on or within solid rock and animals would be unable to burrow or build shelter without loose material. Regolith is also important for human beings since it has been used since the dawn of civilization (in the form of mud bricks, concrete and ceramics) to build houses, roads, and other civil works.

The difference in terminology between “soil” (aka. dirt, mud, etc.) and “sand” is the presence of organic materials. In the former, it exists in abundance, and is what separates regolith on Earth from most other terrestrial environments in our Solar System.

The Moon:

The surface of the Moon is covered with a fine powdery material that scientists refer to it as “lunar regolith”. Nearly the entire lunar surface is covered with regolith, and bedrock is only visible on the walls of very steep craters.

Earth viewed from the Moon by the Apollo 11 spacecraft. Credit: NASA
Earth viewed from the Moon by the Apollo 11 spacecraft, across a sea of lunar soil. Credit: NASA

The Moon regolith was formed over billions of years by constant meteorite impacts on the surface of the Moon. Scientists estimate that the lunar regolith extends down 4-5 meters in some places, and even as deep as 15 meters in the older highland areas.

When the plans were put together for the Apollo missions, some scientists were concerned that the lunar regolith would be too light and powdery to support the weight of the lunar lander. Instead of landing on the surface, they were worried that the lander would just sink down into it like a snowbank.

However, landings performed by robotic Surveyor spacecraft showed that the lunar soil was firm enough to support a spacecraft, and astronauts later explained that the surface of the Moon felt very firm beneath their feet. During the Apollo landings, the astronauts often found it necessary to use a hammer to drive a core sampling tool into it.

Once astronauts reached the surface, they reported that the fine moon dust stuck to their spacesuits and then dusted the inside of the lunar lander. The astronauts also claimed that it got into their eyes, making them red; and worse, even got into their lungs, giving them coughs. Lunar dust is very abrasive, and has been noted for its ability to wear down spacesuits and electronics.

Alan Bean Takes Lunar Soil Sample
Alan Bean takes a sample of lunar regolith during the Apollo 12 mission. Credit: NASA

The reason for this is because lunar regolith is sharp and jagged. This is due to the fact that the Moon has no atmosphere or flowing water on it, and hence no natural weathering process. When the micro-meteoroids slammed into the surface and created all the particles, there was no process for wearing down its sharp edges.

The term lunar soil is often used interchangeably with “lunar regolith”, but some have argued that the term “soil” is not correct because it is defined as having organic content. However, standard usage among lunar scientists tends to ignore that distinction. “Lunar dust” is also used, but mainly to refer to even finer materials than lunar soil.

As NASA is working on plans to send humans back to the Moon in the coming years, researchers are working to learn the best ways to work with the lunar regolith. Future colonists could mine minerals, water, and even oxygen out of the lunar soil, and use it to manufacture bases with as well.


Landers and rovers that have been sent to Mars by NASA, the Russians and the ESA have returned many interesting photographs, showing a landscape that is covered with vast expanses of sand and dust, as well as rocks and boulders.

A successful scoop of Martian regolith (NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/Max Planck Institute)
A successful scoop of Martian regolith performed by NASA’s Phoenix lander. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/Max Planck Institute

Compared to lunar regolith, Mars dust is very fine and enough remains suspended in the atmosphere to give the sky a reddish hue. The dust is occasionally picked up in vast planet-wide dust storms, which are quite slow due to the very low density of the atmosphere.

The reason why Martian regolith is so much finer than that found on the Moon is attributed to the flowing water and river valleys that once covered its surface. Mars researchers are currently studying whether or not martian regolith is still being shaped in the present epoch as well.

It is believed that large quantities of water and carbon dioxide ices remain frozen within the regolith, which would be of use if and when manned missions (and even colonization efforts) take place in the coming decades.

Mars moon of Deimos is also covered by a layer of regolith that is estimated to be 50 meters (160 feet) thick. Images provided by the Viking 2 orbiter confirmed its presence from a height of 30 km (19 miles) above the moon’s surface.

Asteroids and Outer Solar System:

The only other planet in our Solar System that is known to have regolith is Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. The surface is known for its extensive fields of dunes, though the precise origin of them are not known. Some scientists have suggested that they may be small fragments of water ice eroded by Titan’s liquid methane, or possibly particulate organic matter that formed in Titan’s atmosphere and rained down on the surface.

Another possibility is that a series of powerful wind reversals, which occur twice during a single Saturn year (30 Earth years), are responsible for forming these dunes, which measure several hundred meters high and stretch across hundreds of kilometers.  Currently, Earth scientists are still not certain what Titan’s regolith is composed of.

Data returned by the Huygens Probe’s penetrometer indicated that the surface may be clay-like, but long-term analysis of the data has suggested that it may be composed of sand-like ice grains.  The images taken by the probe upon landing on the moon’s surface show a flat plain covered in rounded pebbles, which may be made of water ice, and suggest the action of moving fluids on them.

Asteroids have been observed to have regolith on their surfaces as well. These are the result of meteoriod impacts that have taken place over the course of millions of years, pulverizing their surfaces and creating dust and tiny particles that are carried within the craters.

False color picture of Eros' 5.3-kilometer (3.3-mile) surface crater, showing regolith inside. Credit: NASA/JPL/JHUAPL
False color picture taken by NASA’s NEAR Shoemaker camera of Eros’ 5.3-kilometer (3.3-mile) surface crater, showing the presence of regolith inside. Credit: NASA/JPL/JHUAPL

NASA’s NEAR Shoemaker spacecraft produced evidence of regolith on the surface of the asteroid 433 Eros, which remains the best images of asteroid regolith to date. Additional evidence has been provided by JAXA’s Hayabusa mission, which returned clear images of regolith on an asteroid that was thought to be too small to hold onto it.

Images provided by the Optical, Spectroscopic, and Infrared Remote Imaging System (OSIRIS) cameras on board the Rosetta Spacecraft confirmed that the asteroid 21 Lutetia has a layer of regolith near its north pole, which was seen to flow in major landslides associated with variations in the asteriod’s albedo.

To break it down succinctly, wherever there is rock, there is likely to be regolith. Whether it is the product of wind or flowing water, or the presence of meteors impacting the surface, good old fashioned “dirt” can be found just about anywhere in our Solar System; and most likely, in the universe beyond…

We’ve done several articles about the Moon’s regolith here on Universe Today. Here’s a way astronauts might be able to extract water from lunar regolith with simple kitchen appliances, and an article about NASA’s search for a lunar digger.

Want to buy some lunar regolith simulant? Here’s a site that lets you buy it. Do you want to be a Moon miner? There’s lots of good metal in that lunar regolith.

You can listen to a very interesting podcast about the formation of the Moon from Astronomy Cast, Episode 17: Where Did the Moon Come From?


You Could Fit All the Planets Between the Earth and the Moon

You could fit all the planets within the average distance to the Moon.
You could fit all the planets within the average distance to the Moon.

I ran into this intriguing infographic over on Reddit that claimed that you could fit all the planets of the Solar System within the average distance between the Earth and the Moon.

I’d honestly never heard this stat before, and it’s pretty amazing how well they tightly fit together.

But I thought it would be a good idea to doublecheck the math, just to be absolutely certain. I pulled my numbers from NASA’s Solar System Fact Sheets, and they’re a little different from the original infographic, but close enough that the comparison is still valid.

Planet Average Diameter (km)
Mercury 4,879
Venus 12,104
Mars 6,771
Jupiter 139,822
Saturn 116,464
Uranus 50,724
Neptune 49,244
Total 380,008

The average distance from the Earth to the Moon is 384,400 km. And check it out, that leaves us with 4,392 km to spare.

So what could we do with the rest of that distance? Well, we could obviously fit Pluto into that slot. It’s around 2,300 km across. Which leaves us about 2,092 km to play with. We could fit one more dwarf planet in there (not Eris though, too big).

The amazing Wolfram-Alpha can make this calculation for you automatically: total diameter of the planets. Although, this includes the diameter of Earth too.

A nod to CapnTrip on Reddit for posting this.

Moon Rotation

Moon Rotation

The rotation of the Moon is a strange situation. It takes the same amount of time for the Moon to complete a full orbit around the Earth as it takes for it to complete one rotation on its axis. In other words, the Moon rotation time is 27.3 days, just the same as its orbital time: 27.3 days.

What this means to us here on Earth is that the Moon always presents the same face to the Earth. We only see one side of the Moon, and not the other. And if you could stand on the surface of the Moon, the Earth would appear to just hang in the sky, not moving anywhere.

Astronomers say that the Moon is tidally locked to the Earth. At some point in the past, it did have a different rotation rate from its orbital period. But slight differences in the shape of the Moon caused the Moon to experience different amounts of gravity depending on its position. These differences acted as a brake, slowing the Moon rotation speed down until it matched its orbital period. There are other tidally locked moons in the Solar System. Pluto and its moon Charon are tidally locked to each other, so they always present the same face to one another.

We’ve written many articles about rotation for Universe Today. Here’s an article about the rotation of the Earth, and here’s an article about the rotation of Saturn.

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 episode of Astronomy Cast all about the Moon. Listen here, Episode 113: The Moon, Part 1.

Blood Moon

A blood moon is the first full moon after a harvest moon, which is the full moon closest to the fall equinox. Another name for a blood moon is a hunter’s moon.

Before the advent of electricity, farmers used the light of the full moons to get work done. The harvest moon was a time they could dedicate to bringing in their fall harvest. And so a month later is the blood moon, or the hunter’s moon. This was a good time for hunters to shoot migrating birds in Europe, or track prey at night to stockpile food for Winter.

A full moon occurs every 29.5 days, so a blood moon occurs about a month after the harvest moon. A blood moon is just a regular full moon. It doesn’t appear any brighter or redder than any other full moon. The distance between the Earth and the Moon can change over the course of the month. When the moon is at its closest, a full moon can appear 10% larger and 30% brighter than when it’s further away from the Earth.

A blood moon will actually turn red when it matches up with a lunar eclipse. These occur about twice a year, so blood moons match up with lunar eclipses about every 6 years or so. At the time of this writing, the next blood moon lunar eclipse will be in 2015.

We’ve written many articles about the Moon for Universe Today. Here’s an article about the discovery of water on the Moon, and here’s an article about a lava tube on the Moon.

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 done several episodes of Astronomy Cast about the Moon. Here’s a good one, Episode 17: Where Does the Moon Come From?