It is an opportune moment to dwell on this article as the 50th anniversary of the Moon landing which took place on 21st July, and the exploration of the planet’s surface which began the next day, following tests and experimentation to determine the safety of further progress, took place. The following is a look at our relationship with the Moon over recent years.
The regular daily and monthly rhythms of the Earth’s only natural satellite, the Moon, has guided timekeepers for thousands of years. Its influence on Earth’s cycles, notably tides, has also been charted by many cultures in many ages. More than 70 spacecraft have been sent to the Moon; 12 astronauts have walked upon its surface and brought back 382 kg (842 pounds) of lunar rock and soil to Earth over the last 50 years.
The presence of the Moon was discovered to stabilise the Earth’s wobble. This has led to a
much more stable climate over the billions of years of our existence, which may have affected the course of the development and growth of life on Earth.
How did the Moon actually come to into being? The latest theory tells us that a Mars-sized body of debris once collided with Earth. The resulting debris from both the Earth and the body of debris, accumulated to form the Moon. Scientists believe that the Moon came into being approximately 4.5 billion years ago (the age of the oldest collected lunar rocks). When the Moon formed, its outer layers melted under very high temperatures, forming the lunar crust, probably from a global “magma ocean.”
From Earth, we see the same face of the Moon all the time because the Moon rotates just once on its own axis in very nearly the same time that it travels once around Earth. This is known as “synchronous rotation.” Patterns of dark and light features on the nearside have given rise to the fanciful “Man in the Moon” description of children’s stories.
The light areas are lunar highlands. The dark features, called Maria, are impact basins that were filled with dark lava between 4 and 2.5 billion years ago. After this time of volcanism, the Moon cooled down, and has since been nearly unchanged, except for a steady rain of “hits” by meteorites and comets over the millennia.
The Moon’s surface is charcoal gray and sandy, with much fine soil. This powdery blanket is called the lunar regolith, a term for mechanically produced debris layers on planetary surfaces. The regolith is thin, ranging from about 2 meters on the youngest Maria to perhaps 20 meters on the oldest surfaces in the highlands.
Unlike Earth, the Moon does not have moving crustal plates or active volcanoes. However, seismometers planted by the Apollo astronauts in the 1970s have recorded small quakes at depths of several hundred kilometres. The quakes are probably triggered by tides resulting from Earth’s gravitational pull.
Small eruptions of gas from some craters, such as Aristarchus, have also been reported. Local magnetic areas have been detected around craters, but the Moon does not have a magnetic field resembling Earth’s one.
A surprising discovery from the tracking of the Lunar Orbiter spacecraft in the 1960s revealed strong areas of high gravitational acceleration located over the circular Maria. These mass concentrations may have been caused by layers of denser, basaltic lavas that filled the mare basins.
In 1998, the Lunar Prospector spacecraft team reported finding water ice at both poles. Comet impacts deposited water on the Moon. Some of it migrated to very dark, very cold areas at the poles. Much remains to be learned about our Moon. Researchers continue to study the samples and data returned by Apollo and other missions, as well as lunar meteorites.
Both private and public corporations are studying intensly for a method of one day colonising this fascinating planet.
Fact and Figures
Discovered By: Unknown (Known by the Ancients)
Date of Discovery: Unknown
Average Distance from Earth
Metric: 384,400 km
English: 238,855 miles
Metric: 10,916 km
English: 6,783 miles
Metric: 21,970,000 km3
Scientific Notation: 2.197 x 1010 km3
By Comparison: 0.020 x Earth
Metric: 73,483,000,000,000,000,000,000 kg
Scientific Notation: 7.3483 x 1022 kg
By Comparison: 0.0123 x Earth
Metric: 3.341 g/cm3
By Comparison: 0.606 x Earth
Metric: 37,932,330 km2
English: 14,645,750 square miles