11 Spectacular Facts About the Moon

Matt Cardy/Stringer, Getty Images
Matt Cardy/Stringer, Getty Images

The Moon is Earth’s closest satellite in our solar system, but in many ways, we hardly know our neighbor. Scientists aren’t entirely sure how it formed, and other facts, like its shape (more egg-like than spherical), and the consistency of its surface (dusty but firm), were confirmed only recently. With the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing this year, and NASA preparing to return to the lunar surface for the first time in decades, it’s time to brush up on these facts about the Moon—from colorful names for full moons to the first landing on the dark side of the Moon.

1. The Moon may have formed when a giant object in the solar system hit Earth.

Scientists aren't in total agreement on how the Moon formed, but the most widely accepted theory is the giant impact hypothesis. According to this theory, an object the size of Mars called Theia collided with Earth 4.5 billion years ago when the solar system was still new and chaotic. The impact dislodged matter from Earth’s crust, and the debris attached to whatever was left of Theia through the force of gravity.

This scenario would explain why the Moon is made up of lighter elements found in Earth’s outer layer, but it still leaves some questions unanswered. If the giant impact hypothesis is correct, about 60 percent of the Moon should consist of the impact object. Instead, its composition is almost identical to that of Earth. There are alternative explanations: one posits that the Moon is a space object that got caught in Earth’s orbit, and another one suggests the Moon and Earth formed at the same time, but none is as popular as the giant impact theory.

2. The Moon is the perfect size for solar eclipses.

Moon covering sun during solar eclipse.
Masashi Hara/Getty Images

A lucky set of circumstances make total solar eclipses, as seen from Earth, possible. The Moon is just the right size and distance from our planet to appear as the same size as the Sun in the sky. When the Moon passes between the Sun and the Earth, it covers the Sun perfectly with an impressive corona illuminating its edges. If it were any smaller or farther from Earth, it would look like a blot on the Sun during a solar eclipse.

3. A full Moon has different nicknames in different seasons.

A full moon can have many colorful names, but they don’t always describe a special celestial phenomenon. Some are used to refer to a full moon that appears during a certain time of year. A harvest moon, which is the full moon closest to the autumn equinox, is the best-known example, but there are many others, including a wolf moon (first full moon of January), strawberry moon (June), and sturgeon moon (August).

4. It’s the largest moon in the solar system relative to its planet.

Our Moon isn’t the largest in the solar system (that distinction goes to Ganymede, one of Jupiter’s 79 moons), but it is the biggest in relation to the planet it orbits. With a diameter of 2159 miles and a surface area of 14.6 million square miles, the Moon is a little more than one-fourth the size of Earth. The dwarf planet Pluto has an even smaller moon-to-planet ratio. Pluto’s largest moon Charon is nearly the size of its host body, leading some astronomers to refer to the pair as a double-dwarf planet.

5. The Moon is shaped like a lemon.

The Moon may look perfectly round in the night sky, but it’s actually more of an oval shape. It came out wonky billions of years ago when super-hot tidal forces shaped its crust, heating up some areas hotter than others to form a lemon shape rather than a perfect sphere. Gravitational forces from Earth have helped to exaggerate the Moon’s oblong appearance over eons.

6. Scientists thought Moon dust would cause lunar landers to sink.

Lunar module over moon's surface.
NASA/Newsmakers

When preparing to send missions to the Moon, some scientists feared that a thick layer of dust on the body’s surface would cause complications. One of the strongest proponents of the dust theory was Thomas Gold, an astrophysicist at Cornell University. He insisted that the Moon was covered in seas of dust soft and thick enough to swallow a lunar lander. Though the Moon’s surface is dusty, the layer is too thin to cause problems, as the successful landings of the Soviet Luna 9 and the American Surveyor spacecrafts proved in 1966.

7. The Moon is international property.

Astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong may have planted an American flag on the Moon in 1969, but it belongs to the world. Countries like the Soviet Union and the U.S. made sure of that at the height of the space race in 1967 when they signed the Outer Space Treaty, a document declaring that the Moon would be a “global commons” and any resources discovered there would be used for the good of the world overall. In keeping with the spirit of the agreement, NASA shared soil samples taken from the Moon with Soviet scientists upon the Apollo 11 mission's return.

8. Humans have left strange things on the Moon.

Since the first people landed on the Moon in 1969, its surface has been home to more than just dust. Earth artifacts left on the Moon by astronauts include two golf balls, an obscene Andy Warhol doodle, and a message from Queen Elizabeth II. Eugene Cernan, Apollo 17 commander and one of the last people to walk on the Moon, traced his daughter’s initials into the soil when he visited in 1972. Without any wind or weather on the Moon, the letters TDC could remain there forever.

9. The "dark side of the Moon" is the result of synchronous rotation.

Even though the Moon is constantly rotating, only one side of it is visible from Earth. This is because the Moon is locked in synchronous rotation. It takes the Moon just as long to complete one full rotation as it does for the body to orbit around the Earth once, so the same side always faces our planet. This isn’t a coincidence—the Earth’s gravitational forces have gradually pulled the tip of the slightly oblong Moon to point toward the planet, creating something called tidal lock.

In January 2019, the Chinese space agency landed the first lunar probe on the unexplored dark side of the Moon. The Chang'e 4 spacecraft sent the first photographs of a massive impact crater on the dark side to Earth, giving scientists their first glimpse of that unknown region.

10. One astronaut was allergic to the Moon.

Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison “Jack” Schmitt discovered the hard way that some people are allergic to Moon matter. Following a survey of a valley in the Sea of Serenity, he climbed back into the crew’s lunar module and tracked in a lot of Moon dust with him. The dust affected him as soon as he removed his spacesuit, triggering red eyes, sneezing fits, and other symptoms that lasted two hours.

11. Humans are going back to the Moon soon.

After completing several manned missions to the Moon, NASA ended the Apollo program in 1972 as budgets tightened and public interest waned. That means most people alive today have never witnessed a manned lunar landing, but now, following a hiatus nearing 50 years, NASA is finally preparing to return to the Moon. The next manned lunar expedition will be ready to launch “no later than the late 2020s,” according to the space agency. One of the goals will be placing a command module, called Gateway, in the Moon’s orbit that astronauts can reuse over multiple missions.

What is Mercury in Retrograde, and Why Do We Blame Things On It?

NASA
NASA

Crashed computers, missed flights, tensions in your workplace—a person who subscribes to astrology would tell you to expect all this chaos and more when Mercury starts retrograding. For 2020, that means February 17 through March 10; June 18 through July 12; and October 14 through November 3. But according to an astronomer, this common celestial phenomenon is no reason to stay cooped up at home for weeks at a time.

"We don't know of any physical mechanism that would cause things like power outages or personality changes in people," Dr. Mark Hammergren, an astronomer at Chicago's Adler Planetarium, tells Mental Floss. So if Mercury doesn’t throw business dealings and relationships out of whack when it appears to change direction in the sky, why are so many people convinced that it does?

The History of "Mercury in Retrograde"

Mercury retrograde—as it's technically called—was being written about in astrology circles as far back as the mid-18th century. The event was noted in British agricultural almanacs of the time, which farmers would read to sync their planting schedules to the patterns of the stars. During the spiritualism craze of the Victorian era, interest in astrology boomed, with many believing that the stars affected the Earth in a variety of (often inconvenient) ways. Late 19th-century publications like The Astrologer’s Magazine and The Science of the Stars connected Mercury retrograde with heavy rainfall. Characterizations of the happening as an "ill omen" also appeared in a handful of articles during that period, but its association with outright disaster wasn’t as prevalent then as it is today.

While other spiritualist hobbies like séances and crystal gazing gradually faded, astrology grew even more popular. By the 1970s, horoscopes were a newspaper mainstay and Mercury retrograde was a recurring player. Because the Roman god Mercury was said to govern travel, commerce, financial wealth, and communication, in astrological circles, Mercury the planet became linked to those matters as well.

"Don’t start anything when Mercury is retrograde," an April 1979 issue of The Baltimore Sun instructed its readers. "A large communications organization notes that magnetic storms, disrupting messages, are prolonged when Mercury appears to be going backwards. Mercury, of course, is the planet associated with communication." The power attributed to the event has become so overblown that today it's blamed for everything from digestive problems to broken washing machines.

What is Mercury in Retrograde?

Though hysteria around Mercury retrograde is stronger than ever, there's still zero evidence that it's something we should worry about. Even the flimsiest explanations, like the idea that the gravitational pull from Mercury influences the water in our bodies in the same way that the moon controls the tides, are easily deflated by science. "A car 20 feet away from you will exert a stronger pull of gravity than the planet Mercury does," Dr. Hammergren says.

To understand how little Mercury retrograde impacts life on Earth, it helps to learn the physical process behind the phenomenon. When the planet nearest to the sun is retrograde, it appears to move "backwards" (east to west rather than west to east) across the sky. This apparent reversal in Mercury's orbit is actually just an illusion to the people viewing it from Earth. Picture Mercury and Earth circling the sun like cars on a racetrack. A year on Mercury is shorter than a year on Earth (88 Earth days compared to 365), which means Mercury experiences four years in the time it takes us to finish one solar loop.

When the planets are next to one another on the same side of the sun, Mercury looks like it's moving east to those of us on Earth. But when Mercury overtakes Earth and continues its orbit, its straight trajectory seems to change course. According to Dr. Hammergren, it's just a trick of perspective. "Same thing if you were passing a car on a highway, maybe going a little bit faster than they are," he says. "They're not really going backwards, they just appear to be going backwards relative to your motion."

Embedded from GIFY

Earth's orbit isn't identical to that of any other planet in the solar system, which means that all the planets appear to move backwards at varying points in time. Planets farther from the sun than Earth have even more noticeable retrograde patterns because they're visible at night. But thanks to astrology, it's Mercury's retrograde motion that incites dread every few months.

Dr. Hammergren blames the superstition attached to Mercury, and astrology as a whole, on confirmation bias: "[Believers] will say, 'Aha! See, there's a shake-up in my workplace because Mercury's retrograde.'" He urges people to review the past year and see if the periods of their lives when Mercury was retrograde were especially catastrophic. They'll likely find that misinterpreted messages and technical problems are fairly common throughout the year. But as Dr. Hammergren says, when things go wrong and Mercury isn't retrograde, "we don't get that hashtag. It's called Monday."

This piece originally ran in 2018.

Arrokoth, the Farthest, Oldest Solar System Object Ever Studied, Could Reveal the Origins of Planets

NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/Roman Tkachenko
NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/Roman Tkachenko

A trip to the most remote part of our solar system has revealed some surprising insights into the formation of our own planet. Three new studies based on data gathered on NASA's flyby of Arrokoth—the farthest object in the solar system from Earth and the oldest body ever studied—is giving researchers a better idea of how the building blocks of planets were formed, what Arrokoth's surface is made of, and why it looks like a giant circus peanut.

Arrokoth is a 21-mile-wide space object that formed roughly 4 billion years ago. Located past Pluto in the Kuiper Belt, it's received much less abuse than other primordial bodies that sit in asteroid belts or closer to the sun. "[The objects] that form there have basically been unperturbed since the beginning of the solar system," William McKinnon, lead author of one of the studies, said at a news briefing.

That means, despite its age, Arrokoth doesn't look much different today than when it first came into being billions of years ago, making it the perfect tool for studying the origins of planets.

In 2019, the NASA spacecraft New Horizons performed a flyby of Arrokoth on the edge of the solar system 4 billion miles away from Earth. The probe captured a binary object consisting of two connected lobes that were once separate fragments. In their paper, McKinnon and colleagues explain that Arrokoth "is the product of a gentle, low-speed merger in the early solar system."

Prior to these new findings, there were two competing theories into how the solid building blocks of planets, or planetesimals, form. The first theory is called hierarchical accretion, and it states that planetesimals are created when two separate parts of a nebula—the cloud of gas and space dust born from a dying star—crash into one another.

The latest observations of Arrokoth support the second theory: Instead of a sudden, violent collision, planetesimals form when gases and particles in a nebula gradually amass to the point where they become too dense to withstand their own gravity. Nearby components meld together gradually, and a planetesimal is born. "All these particles are falling toward the center, then whoosh, they make a big planetesimal. Maybe 10, 20, 30, 100 kilometers across," said McKinnon, a professor of Earth and planetary sciences at Washington University. This type of cloud collapse typically results in binary shapes rather than smooth spheroids, hence Arrokoth's peanut-like silhouette.

If this is the origin of Arrokoth, it was likely the origin of other planetesimals, including those that assembled Earth. "This is how planetesimal formation took place across the Kuiper Belt, and quite possibly across the solar system," New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern said at the briefing.

The package of studies, published in the journal Science, also includes findings on the look and substance of Arrokoth. In their paper, Northern Arizona University planetary scientist Will Grundy and colleagues reveal that the surface of the body is covered in "ultrared" matter so thermodynamically unstable that it can't exist at higher temperatures closer to the sun.

The ultrared color is a sign of the presence of organic substances, namely methanol ice. Grundy and colleagues speculate that the frozen alcohol may be the product of water and methane ice reacting with cosmic rays. New Horizons didn't detect any water on the body, but the researchers say its possible that H2O was present but hidden from view. Other unidentified organic compounds were also found on Arrokoth.

New Horizon's flyby of Pluto and Arrokoth took place over the course of a few days. To gain a further understanding of how the object formed and what it's made of, researchers need to find a way to send a probe to the Kuiper Belt for a longer length of time, perhaps by locking it into the orbit of a larger body. Such a mission could tell us even more about the infancy of the solar system and the composition of our planetary neighborhood's outer limits.

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