Tag Archives: Moon

Lunar Mythbusting

Tonight is October 8th, which has been declared International Observe the Moon Night (IOMN).  Personally, I would choose a date as close to September 13th as possible to take a jab at the late Gerry Anderson and his bit of lunar lunacy known as “Space: 1999”.  Yes, I know I missed that date as well on this blog, but I had other issues to deal with.  With IOMN clouded and/or rained out tonight for a large portion of the United States, I thought I would provide some educational lunar entertainment to make up for it.  So, I dusted off an article I wrote for the Asterism (AAI’s long-defunct newsletter) and I’m using it for material here.

Some years ago, I went to a convention and saw Dee Wallace, best known for playing the mom in E.T. The Extraterrestrial. She was quite nice and she was also there to push DVDs of “The Howling”, a werewolf movie she was in. I took the opportunity to explain to her that I didn’t find werewolf stuff too interesting due to my knowledge of the Moon and the fact that it exerts no strange influences. Dee agreed, but she said that the myths about the Moon were quite pervasive in popular culture, even after the Apollo astronauts walked on the Moon without anything strange happening to them. So, let’s take a detailed look at why the Moon, while interesting, is not mystical.

Time and Tides: People who believe in the mystical powers of the Moon often point out that it could exert its spooky actions through tidal forces. On the surface, this might seem reasonable. After all, anyone who has spent more than a few hours by the ocean or a bay has noticed that the water rises and falls due to tides. Some have argued that, since the ocean is water and people are mostly water in terms of composition, lunar tides should affect people and their behavior. They point to claims of increased weird behavior at times of full Moon and then the old stories always say that werewolves change from people to beasts at full Moon.

However, the “Full Moon effect” has been shown to be false by numerous statistical studies. Also, if one knows how tides work, it is easy to see that they cannot influence living beings.  Tides result when the side of an object nearest a gravity source experiences a greater pull than the opposite side does.  In the case of the oceans, the sea facing the Moon is about 8,000 miles closer to the Moon than the ocean on the opposite side of the Earth. Since the Moon is about a quarter of a million miles away, the diameter of the Earth is a measurable fraction of that distance and the ocean feels the effect of the difference.

Now, consider the case of a human being. To make things as fair as possible to the werewolf buffs, our example will be a player from the NBA who is seven feet tall. The difference in the pull of lunar gravity between the top of his head and the soles of his feet is so close to zero that it can be considered zero for any practical purpose. Even the varying distance of the Moon from Earth (the Moon’s orbit is slightly elliptical), while important for ocean tides, does not alter this conclusion.

It could be argued that tides do influence some living creatures since a number of sea animals lay eggs at times of very high tides. This is the result of their biological clocks, not lunar influence. And they are not infallible tide predictors as the large number of horseshoe crabs that die stranded on beaches each spring can attest to.

Blinded By The Light: Anyone who has been at an observatory on a public night during a full Moon knows it can appear very bright, especially through the telescopes. This brightness is deceptive. Actually the Moon reflects light about as well as the pavement of a road (an albedo of about 7%). It appears bright because the Moon is surrounded by nonreflecting space, so even a dark object like would appear bright. But that is not the whole story.

It is known that the full Moon appears about ten times as bright as it does at first or third quarter. Before people knew much about the Moon, this must have appeared strange. But there are two reasons for this effect. First of all, during full Moon, the Sun is overhead as seen from the lunar surface. There are no shadows. At other times, there are always some shadows formed by mountains and crater rims. But the other reason was only discovered after the Apollo missions returned lunar samples to Earth.

Most of the Moon is covered in a layer of dust, which is essentially lunar rock that has been pulverized by eons of micrometeorite impacts. When samples of this dust were studied on Earth, it was discovered that there were numerous tiny bits of glass in it. The glass formed as the impacts of micrometeorites melted little bits of surface material. The bits of glass give lunar dust a weak retroreflective property like those reflectors embedded in many roads. Due to this effect, the lunar dust actually reflects a bit more light towards Earth at full Moon.

No Cheese, Green or Otherwise: The final proof against strange lunar influence is the composition of the Moon itself. It is now widely believed that Moon formed as the result of a collision between Earth and a Mars-sized planetesimal in the early days of the solar system, which sent debris from the Earth’s mantle into space.

Because of this origin, only about a dozen minerals make up the Moon. Besides basalt and anorthosite (basic igneous rocks), most of these are oxides of iron, titanium, chromium, aluminum as well as some silicates, along with some minerals rich in potassium and rare earth elements. Recently, something new has been added to this list. In 1998, the Lunar Prospector probe found evidence of hydrogen-rich material in some permanently shaded craters near the lunar South Pole. While it could be buried water ice from ancient comet impacts, hydrated minerals and cometary hydrocarbons have not been ruled out. While this mix of minerals is interesting to those who want to build lunar bases, it is about as non-mystical as one can get.

As one can see, the Moon is an interesting place with great potential importance for humanity’s future. Now, isn’t this far more interesting and exciting than mysticism and werewolf stories?

Why Wink When You Should Salute?

August 25th, 2016 marks the fourth anniversary of the death of Neil Armstrong, the first human being to set foot on the lunar surface.  Shortly after his death, the Armstrong family announced that, to honor Neil, every August 25th, people should wink at the Moon if they see it.  I feel that does not go far enough.  One should salute it instead.

One of the main reasons for this was that the man was a true American hero.  While taking over the lunar module’s controls to steer the craft away from a field of boulders that would have brought the mission to a fatal end would be considered a very heroic feat, it wasn’t his only one or even his first.

In the Korean War, Armstrong flew fighter jets from a carrier to attack targets in North Korea.  On one of his missions, his plane ran into a cable stretched across a valley by the North Koreans to wreck low-flying American planes.  For most pilots, the level of damage would have been enough to cause the pilot to eject, which would have likely resulted in a stay at a North Korean POW camp.  But Armstrong was no ordinary pilot.  He managed to maintain some control over the plane.  While returning to the carrier was impossible, there was a Marine base that was within flying range.  Armstrong proceeded to fly to the base.  Just before he reached the base, the plane became uncontrollable and he was forced to eject.  Armstrong made it safely to the ground and was promptly rescued by Marines from the nearby base.

Another heroic feat was during the Gemini 8 mission.  This was to test the concept of docking spacecraft in orbit.  The test target was the upper stage of an Agena rocket.  Shortly after docking, the crew noticed the capsule was moving in an odd manner.  Thinking the problem was with the upper stage, they quickly undocked.  The problem only got worse and the capsule started to spin.  What had happened was one of the Gemini capsule’s thrusters got stuck in the on position and was causing the spacecraft to spin, almost to the point of uncontrollability.  Sizing up the situation, Armstrong decided to use the thrusters designed for reentry as a means of stopping the motion, something that nobody had considered.  Fortunately, the maneuver worked but it meant that they had to return to Earth immediately.  But that quick action saved the life of Armstrong and that of his fellow astronaut.

However, heroism wasn’t his only claim to greatness.  There was his character.  He never bragged about his heroic deeds.  When Apollo 11 returned from the Moon, Armstrong was always quick to credit the success of the mission to the vast number of engineers, scientists, and workers who designed and built the spacecraft.  He never lorded his accomplishment over others and, after he retired from NASA, he became a professor of aeronautics.  If our elected officials had only one-percent of his character, this country would be a better place.

Armstrong’s post-Apollo conduct was reminiscent of that of another great American hero – one of our first.  After the Revolutionary War, George Washington could have asked for, and got, anything he wanted.  Yet, he decided to return to his home at Mount Vernon and operate his plantation.  At the end of his two terms (he felt two terms were enough) as president, he again went back home and kept to himself.

So, if you see the Moon on August 25th, don’t wink, salute.  Let’s honor a great American hero, one who never disgraced himself and one we don’t have to apologize for.

The Video Some Newsletter Editors Didn’t Want People to See

Today, is September 13th (at least I am writing this on the 13th though it may be actually posted a little later as I am trying to get video embedding to work).  Back when my astronomy club still had a newsletter (as of this writing it has been dormant for months with no end in sight), I had a regular column and every September I would have an article pertaining to the Moon.  I am starting a similar tradition on this blog, but it will be on September 13th.

The reason for this is to honor(?) the greatest lunar explosion that never happened except in the imagination of the late Gerry Anderson (1929-2012), a British TV producer who had a thing for puppets that prompted him to devise (and be the only person to use) a technique called “Supermarionation” in no less than four TV series (“Captain Scarlet”, “Fireball XL-5”, “Stingray”, and “Thunderbirds”).  Anderson also had a fondness for blowing things up that might have inspired Michael Bay.  In addtion to his puppet work, Anderson also had two live action TV series: “UFO” and “Space: 1999”.  On the latter series, Anderson imagined that the Moon would be used as a gigantic version of the waste repository the U.S. government wanted to put inside Yucca Mountain.  And on September 13th, 1999, the whole kit and kaboodle exploded (evidently inspired by reports of a 1957 waste dump explosion in the Soviet Union) and launched the Moon and a dysfunctional group of humans on a crazy ride where every week they ran into aliens who were even more dysfunctional.  Since I like to connect seemingly unconnectable things, I figured a lunar article every September would be the perfect way to thumb my nose at Anderson and his special effects laden but quality-challenged series (or honor it – either way works).

So, in one of those lunar columns, I thought it would be fun to put in a link to a rather hilarious video that a group called “Ill-Conceived Productions” created that raked the series over the comedic coals by taking clips from the series and turning them into an old style black and white silent movie, complete with simulated film degradation, title cards and piano music soundtrack.  But, when the column ran in the actual newsletter, the link and explanatory text were missing.

Turns out this wasn’t an accidental omission.  It seems the newsletter editor at the time (actually it was the individual who gave him his marching orders) decided not to include it since they felt the humor would go over the heads of kids.  Evidently, this person has hung around Cub and Boy Scouts so long that they had this delusion that kids actually read the newsletter.  Actually, the newsletter had more readers among the Grays and Reptilians (non-existent UFO aliens) than it did among the kiddie set.  Come to think of it, it didn’t have a big readership, period.

Fortunately, that newsletter editor and his boss do not have any jurisdiction over this blog.  So, here is the video.  In case anyone is wondering, the cast of the series was evidently cool with the video, at least that is what I heard from Martin Landau (Commander John Koenig on the series) himself.  Enjoy.

In case the embedded video doesn’t work for you, here is the direct Youtube link as well as the Metacafe version

It was 45 Years Ago

Back on the summer evening of July 20th, 1969, forty five years ago tonight (I’m writing this on July 20th, 2014), the late Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin literally stepped into history when they were the first human beings to land on the Moon.

This historic milestone has received some discussion in the media recently.  So far, while the coverage has been less than it was at the 40th anniversary (back in 2009, the anniversary of Woodstock actually got more press – I suppose that is a statement on American society), it doesn’t seem to be upstaged by any other anniversaries this time around.

While the landing of Apollo 11 and the subsequent lunar missions were impressive achievements, they wound up representing high water marks in space achievement and, outside of the amazing success of our robotic exploration of the solar system, are fading into history.

Sadly, the Apollo astronauts are also passing from the scene.  I have a feeling that, by the time a human being ever returns to the Moon – most likely a Chinese person – none of the original Moon travelers will be around.

On the brighter side, by the time people get back to the Moon, we might be better able to deal with the various issues concerning lunar travel (the ubiquitous lunar dust and radiation exposure) than the Apollo crews.

In the meantime, let’s honor the original lunar travelers while they can still appreciate it.