In honor of the 40th anniversary of the first manned lunar landing, I’ll feature Earth’s only natural satellite, the Moon, for the month of July.
(Neil Armstrong audio: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”)
NASA Astronaut, Neil Armstrong, spoke those famous words on July 20, 1969, as he and fellow astronaut, Edwin (Buzz) Aldrin, became the first humans to set foot on the lunar surface.
While you and I will likely never know the thrill of actually touching the Moon’s surface, we can observe it up-close, using binoculars and telescopes. In fact, with its vast system of craters, plains, and mountain ranges, we can spend countless enjoyable hours exploring the lunar surface.
Each phase of the Moon offers something special. With a fuller moon, greater illumination means more surface area to investigate. As the Moon waxes and wanes, less illumination offers greater contrast to lunar features, especially those along the terminator – that line where light meets dark.
Knowing what you are looking at is always more fun than simply looking; so, exactly where and what should you explore when observing the Moon? For where to look, I recommend starting with one of the free online lunar charts or atlases; and I can give you a start with what to explore …
Craters, recognizable as brighter, circular features, were formed by impacts from asteroids and comets.
Plains, also known as maria, are those dark splotchy regions. Maria means seas, which is exactly what original observers once thought these ancient lava flows were.
Mountain ranges look like elongated ridges. Because of the moon’s low gravity and lack of erosion, lunar mountains can be very tall and especially steep and rugged.
Since this month does mark that 40th anniversary of the first humans on the moon, why not observe those regions where Apollo astronauts have landed?
That very first manned landing, Apollo 11 in 1969, touched down in the Sea of Tranquility. Four months later, Apollo 12 landed a few hundred kilometers west, in the Ocean of Storms. The last manned lunar mission occurred in 1972, with Apollo 17 landing at the Sea of Serenity.
Whenever, wherever, and however you observe the moon, be safe and be comfortable. Try keeping a journal for notes about, and even sketches of, what you see. And don’t forget to check my blog entries for lunar observing tips, information about the six manned lunar missions, and where you can get free lunar maps.
Lunar Atlases / Maps: You can find user-friendly lunar maps in bookstores, online, and in some libraries.
Ernest H. Charrington, Jr.‘s extensive book, Exploring the Moon Through Binoculars and Small Telescopes includes labeled images, science data, and detailed background information.
Peter Grego has two excellent guide books – The Moon and How to Observe it is a comprehensive guide that includes images, science data, background information, and in-depth observing tips for telescopes, binoculars, and the unaided eye. His Philip’s Moon Observers Guide is a more practical introduction handbook, complete with a daily observing diary, images, and tips. You might also enjoy Peter’s archived Astronomy Now lunar observing articles.
Online Maps: There are many lunar charts, atlases, and maps available online, including premium software applications and free charts.
Created by Christian Legrand and Patrick Chevalley, The Virtual Moon Atlas is a free application that you can download directly to your desktop. While this user-friendly program is reasonably self-explanatory for general use, the Cloudy Nights website does offer a Beginner’s Tutorial for basic configurations.
The Full Moon Atlas is a series of interactive maps that can be accessed either online as a free-preview version or via your desktop as a nominally-priced full version. This program includes catalogs, detailed images, mouse-over identification, and a lunar phase calculator.
The Observatoria ARVAL Moon Map is an online one-page feature of an annotated Full Moon image and is perfect for quick identification of various lunar features.
The Moon Society offers an excellent learning opportunity on their website, as co-sponsors of the American Lunar Society‘s “Lunar Study and Observing Certificate Program.”