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Sunday, June 10, 2012

Secrets of the Moon

The Moon's gravitational influence produces the ocean tides and the minute lengthening of the day. The Moon's current orbital distance, about thirty times the diameter of the Earth, causes it to appear almost the same size in the sky as the Sun, allowing it to cover the Sun nearly precisely in total solar eclipses.

Blanketed on top of the Moon's crust is a highly comminuted (broken into ever smaller particles) and impact gardened surface layer called regolith, formed by impact processes. The finer regolith, the lunar soil of silicon dioxide glass, has a texture like snow and smell like spent gunpowder

Liquid water cannot persist on the lunar surface. When exposed to solar radiation, water quickly decomposes through a process known as photodissociation and is lost to space. However since the 1960s, scientists have hypothesized that water ice may be deposited by impacting comets or possibly produced by the reaction of oxygen-rich lunar rocks, and hydrogen from solar wind, leaving traces of water which could possibly survive in cold, permanently shadowed craters at either pole on the Moon

The gravitational field of the Moon has been measured through tracking the Doppler shift of radio signals emitted by orbiting spacecraft. The main lunar gravity features are mascons, large positive gravitational anomalies associated with some of the giant impact basins, partly caused by the dense mare basaltic lava flows that fill these basins. These anomalies greatly influence the orbit of spacecraft about the Moon. There are some puzzles: lava flows by themselves cannot explain all of the gravitational signature, and some mascons exist that are not linked to mare volcanism

The Moon has an atmosphere so tenuous as to be nearly vacuum, with a total mass of less than 10 metric tons. The surface pressure of this small mass is around 3 × 10-15 atm (0.3 nPa); it varies with the lunar day. Its sources include outgassing and sputtering, the release of atoms from the bombardment of lunar soil by solar wind ions. Elements that have been detected include sodium and potassium, produced by sputtering, which are also found in the atmospheres of Mercury and Io; helium-4 from the solar wind; and argon-40, radon-222, and polonium-210, outgassed after their creation by radioactive decay within the crust and mantle

The Moon's axial tilt is only 1.54°, much less than the 23.44° of the Earth. Because of this, the Moon's solar illumination varies much less with season, and topographical details play a crucial role in seasonal effects. From images taken by Clementine in 1994, it appears that four mountainous regions on the rim of Peary crater at the Moon's north pole remain illuminated for the entire lunar day, creating peaks of eternal light

The Moon is exceptionally large relative to the Earth: a quarter the diameter of the planet and 1/81 its mass. It is the second largest moon orbiting an object in the solar system relative to the size of its planet. Charon is larger relative to the dwarf planet Pluto, at slightly more than 1/9 (11.6%) of Pluto's mass

The Moon has an exceptionally low albedo, giving it a similar reflectance to coal. Despite this, it is the second brightest object in the sky after the Sun. This is partly due to the brightness enhancement of the opposition effect; at quarter phase, the Moon is only one-tenth as bright, rather than half as bright, as at full Moon

Additionally, colour constancy in the visual system recalibrates the relations between the colours of an object and its surroundings, and since the surrounding sky is comparatively dark, the sunlit Moon is perceived as a bright object. The edges of the full Moon seem as bright as the centre, with no limb darkening, due to the reflective properties of lunar soil, which reflects more light back towards the Sun than in other directions.

The Moon does appear larger when close to the horizon, but this is a purely psychological effect, known as the Moon illusion, first described in the 7th century BC. The full Moon subtends an arc of about 0.52° (on average) in the sky, roughly the same apparent size as the Sun

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