Ever feel like you are being watched?
That can be a good thing sometimes. Looking up at the night sky, it seems like every time I see the moon it’s looking back. Of course it isn’t. A big ball of rock is incapable of “looking.” Yet in our fanciful imagination, we see the “man in the moon” on the lunar face, and it is constantly facing our way.
This Thursday, Dec. 12, the moon is full. For a few nights before and after that date, most of the moon is bathing in sunlight, and we see the “face” clearly. At other times, the “face” is partly or even completely hidden, yet it is there.
The next time you see a thin crescent moon, inspect it closely during twilight. The darkened portion of the moon is faintly illuminated, reflecting the Earth’s sunny disposition back towards us. Binoculars will immediately reveal the faithful man in the moon, staring back in the dim earthshine.
As the moon orbits the Earth it rotates once on its axis, keeping in step with its revolution around our globe. When the moon is completely on the sunward side, the “face” is pointing back at the Earth’s daytime side. At this time we call the phase of the moon “new.” Full moon occurs roughly two weeks later, when on the other side, the moon’s “face” is now pointed sunward, back towards the night side of the Earth.
The dark areas on the moon are actually relatively smooth plains of hardened lava, lower in elevation than the brighter surface pockmarked by craters. Even binoculars, held very steady or set on a tripod, will start to show the craters and mountain chains; a small telescope will reveal a wealth of detail, simulating the view only the Apollo astronauts have had so far.
These dark plains, which give us the eyes, nose and mouth of our fanciful man in the moon, are referred to as maria, Latin for seas. An early theory held that the dark areas were bodies of water.
Eyes alone are all that is needed to enjoy the man in the moon and the ever-changing phases. Various cultures of the world have interpreted the markings in their own way. Some have seen a picture of a rabbit, a woman’s head, or a boy or man carrying a load.
Distinct sections of the maria are named; the Sea of Tranquility is easily the best known, since this is where the first manned landing occurred - Apollo 11, on July 20, 1969. The Latin name is Mare Tranquillitatis. Some other maria include Sea of Serenity, Sea of Crises, Ocean of Storms, Sea of Clouds, Sea of Nectar, Sea of Cold and Sea of Fecundity. There’s even a Sea of Cleverness.
Use a moon map to pick out these features, with binoculars; see how much you discern with only your eyes.
Mankind likewise has used his or her imaginative side to trace and name the constellations, and since the invention of the telescope, the brighter star clusters, galaxies and nebulae.
It is somewhat like our childhood whimsy to lay on the ground and find and name shapes in the puffy fair-weather clouds.
At least our celestial company we have claimed and named, are not nearly so fleeting as the clouds.
Keep looking up!
Peter Becker is managing editor at The News Eagle in Hawley, Pennsylvania. Notes are welcome at email@example.com. Please mention in what newspaper or website you read this column.