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Moon, name given to the only natural satellite of Earth. The Moon is the second brightest object in Earth’s sky, after the Sun, and has accordingly been an object of wonder and speculation for people since earliest times. The natural satellites of the other planets in the solar system are also sometimes referred to as moons.

Telescopes have revealed a wealth of lunar detail since their invention in the 17th century, and spacecraft have contributed further knowledge since the 11950s. Earth’s Moon is now known to be a slightly egg-shaped ball composed mostly of rock and metal. It has no liquid water, virtually no atmosphere, and is lifeless. The Moon shines by reflecting the light of the Sun. Although the Moon appears bright to the eye, it reflects on average only 7 percent of the light that falls on it. This reflectivity, called albedo, of 0.07 is similar to that of coal dust.

The diameter of the Moon is about 33,480 km (about 2,160 mi), or about one-fourth that of Earth. The Moon’s mass is only 1.2 percent of Earth’s mass. The average density of the Moon is only three-fifths that of Earth, and gravity at the lunar surface is oonly one-sixth as strong as gravity at sea level on Earth. The Moon moves in an elliptical (oval-shaped) orbit around Earth at an average distance of 384,403 km (238,857 mi) and at an average speed of 3,700 km/h (2,300 mph). It completes one revolution in 27 days 7 hours 43 minutes. For the Moon to go from one phase to the next similar phase—as seen from Earth—requires 29 days 12 hours 44 minutes. This period is called a lunar month. The Moon rotates once on its axis in the same period of time that it circles Earth, accounting for the fact that virtually the same portion of the Moon (the “near side”) is always turned toward Earth.


The Moon shows progressively different phases as it moves along its orbit around Earth. Half the Moon is always in sunlight, just as half of Earth has day while the other half has night. Thus, there is no permanent “dark side of the Moon,” which is sometimes confused with the Moon’s far side—the side that always faces away from Earth. The phases of the Moon depend on how much of the sunlit half can be seen at any oone time. In the phase called the new moon, the near side is completely in shadow. About a week after a new moon, the Moon is in first quarter, resembling a luminous half-circle; another week later, the full moon shows its fully lighted near side; a week afterward, in its last quarter, the Moon appears as a half-circle again. The entire cycle is repeated each lunar month. The Moon is full when it is farther away from the Sun than Earth; it is new when it is closer. When it is more than half illuminated, it is said to be in gibbous phase. The Moon is said to be waning as it progresses from full to new, and to be waxing as it proceeds from new to full.

At any one time, an observer on Earth can see only 50 percent of the Moon’s entire surface. However, an additional 9 percent can be seen from time to time around the edges because the viewing angle from Earth changes slightly as the Moon moves through its elliptical orbit. This slight relative motion is called libration.


Ancient observers of the Moon believed that the dark regions on its face wwere oceans, giving rise to their name maria (Latin for “seas”). This term is still used today although these regions are now known to be completely dry. The brighter regions were held to be continents. Modern observation and exploration of the Moon has yielded far more comprehensive and specific knowledge.

The Moon has no movement of wind or water to alter its surface, yet it was geologically active in the past and is still not totally unchanging. Craters cover the surface, and meteors continue to create new craters. Billions of years ago volcanic eruptions sculpted large areas of the surface. Volcanic features such as maria, domes (low, rounded, circular hills), and rilles (channels or grooves) are still discernable. Scientists have also recently discovered evidence of ice in permanently shadowed areas of the surface.

A Craters

The Moon’s surface is covered with craters overlain by a layer of soil called regolith. Nearly all the craters were formed by explosive impacts of high-velocity meteorites. Billions of years of this meteorite bombardment ground up the Moon’s surface rocks to produce the finely divided rock fragments that compose the regolith. Craters range in size from microscopic to the South Pole-Aitken Basin, which measures over 2,500 km ((1560 mi) in diameter and would nearly span the continental United States. The highest mountains on the Moon, in the Leibnitz and Doerfel ranges near the south pole, make up the rim crest of the South Pole-Aitken Basin and have peaks up to 6,100 m (20,000 ft) in height, comparable to the Himalayas on Earth. At full moon long bright streaks that radiate from certain craters can be seen. These streaks are called ray systems. Ray systems are created when bright material ejected from the craters by meteorites splashes out onto the darker surrounding surface.

The biggest of the Moon’s craters were created by the impacts of large remnants from the formation of the planets billions of years ago when the young solar system still contained many such remnants. Astronomers, however, have directly observed meteorites forming small craters on the Moon’s surface. Seismometers operating on the lunar surface have also recorded signals indicating between 70 and 150 meteorite impacts per year, with projectile masses from 100 g to 1,000 kg (4 oz to 2,200 lb). Hence the Moon is still being bombarded by meteorites, although neither as often nor as violently as in the distant past.

B Volcanic Features

Maria, domes, rilles,

and a few craters display indisputable characteristics of volcanic origin. Maria are plains of dark-colored rock that cover approximately 40 percent of the Moon’s visible hemisphere. The maria formed when molten rock erupted onto the surface and solidified between 3.16 billion and 3.96 billion years ago. This rock resembles terrestrial basalt, a volcanic rock type widely distributed on Earth, but the rock that formed the maria has a higher iron content and contains unusually large amounts of titanium. The largest oof the maria is Oceanus Procellarum, an oval-shaped plain on the near side of the Moon 2,500 km by 1,500 km wide. Photographs of the side of the Moon not visible from Earth have revealed a startling fact: The far side generally lacks the maria that are so conspicuous a feature of the visible side. This probably reflects the fact that the Moon’s crust is thicker on the far side than on the near side, and therefore the lavas that fform the maria were more easily erupted through the thinner crust. Rilles are of two basic types: sinuous and straight. Sinuous rilles are meandering channels that are probably lava drainage channels or collapsed lava tubes formed by large lava flows. SStraight rilles are large shallow troughs caused by movement of the Moon’s crust; they may be up to a thousand kilometers long and several kilometers wide. Domes are small rounded features that range from 8 to 16 km (5 to 10 mi) in diameter and from 60 to 90 m (200 to 300 ft) in height. Domes, thought to be small inactive volcanoes, often contain a small rimless pit on their tops.

Magnetic and other measurements indicate a current temperature at the Moon’s core as high as 1600°C (2900°F), above the melting point of most lunar rocks. Evidence from seismic recordings suggests that some regions near the lunar center may be liquid. However, no evidence of recent volcanic activity has been oobserved.

C Ice

Temperatures on most of the Moon’s surface are too extreme for water or ice to exist, ranging from a maximum of 127°C (261°F) at lunar noon to a minimum of -173°C (-279°F) just before lunar dawn. Temperatures in permanently shadowed areas near the lunar poles, however, may consistently be as low as -220°C (-364°F). In 1996 a team working with data gathered by the Clementine spacecraft announced that frozen water may exist in one of these shadowed areas nnear the Moon’s south pole. Clementine was a joint venture by the Department of Defense and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The spacecraft’s radar showed what may be an 8,000 sq km (3,000 sq mi) area covered with a mixture of dirt and ice crystals. Clementine was launched in 1994 and gathered data for four months.

NASA launched the Lunar Prospector spacecraft toward the Moon in 1998. Prospector returned data confirming the Clementine discovery and suggesting that a significant amount of water exists in the dark areas near the lunar poles in the form of ...

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