Apollo 17 / NASA

The Moon.  It’s a real place.  A world of it’s own, that hangs in our sky.  It may be the very reason life exists on this planet.  Formed when a planet the size of Mars collided with the (then smaller-than-now) Earth, the results of that chaos formed the (more-properly designated) double-planet system we see today.  We often talk about the Moon orbiting the Earth, but it doesn’t, not really.  The Earth and the Moon both orbit around a common center of gravity.  That center is some miles below the surface of the Earth, but it is not the center of the Earth.  The Moon is considered the largest satellite (even though it’s not, not really) of a planet, relative to the primary’s size, in our solar system, with the possible exception of Pluto/Charon.  Now that Pluto has been downgraded from planet status, the Moon may hold that title without challenge.

I took my telescope out into the back yard tonight, and had a look-see.

Craters, rills, mountains, maria, highlands and lowlands all filled my view, as I watched the image slowly sweep past my lens.  The motion of the planet, unfelt and usually unnoticed, is clearly evident when looking through a telescope.  Using the higher power lens, I could easily see surface features, the center peaks of craters (formed by the rebound effect of the ground due to meteor impact).

It is still amazing to me, some 39 years later, that astronauts from the USA walked on the Moon six times.  Twelve men, 260,000 miles through space, in fragile little spaceships, went there, walked there, and returned.  Another amazing (and sad) thing to me is that we never went back.  The next humans to set foot on the Moon will most likely be Chinese.

As I sat looking through my telescope at the moon, I saw an image much like this:

I could easily see those craters along the terminator, with their central peaks poking up into the sunlight from the center of the craters.  The higher, rougher terrain at the lower right was clearly visible in the telescope, as was the darker maria at the left.  What I find most mind boggling, is that this light in the sky, this huge orb hanging over our heads, is a real planet, a real place, somewhere we could go, if we wanted.  We went there six times, with the technology of the mid-60’s.  Think what we could do with today’s technology.

Since the Moon and Jupiter are visually close together in the sky right now, I also trained my telescope on the largest planet in the solar system.

This is close to what I saw, except for the lone moon on the left of this image.  I could clearly see three moons to the right, and when I put the higher powered lens in the scope, I could easily see the bands in Jupiter’s atmosphere.  The Great Red Spot is too small for the resolving power of my scope, but what I did see was fantastic.  (Photo of Jupiter by Naoyuki Kurita)

I often look up in the sky, saying hello to the Moon, Jupiter, Saturn, Mars, and Venus.  When the skys are clear, and the area free of artificial light, I’ll look around at the various constellations, pick out the dippers, the north star (Polaris), the Pleiades, and a few others depending the time of the year.  There’s a cool iPhone app that lets you readily identify what you’re looking at, and where things are that you can’t see.  For instance, in tonight’s scope-fest, the app told me that if I had a better telescope, I would have been able to see Uranus in the sky to the west of the Moon.  I used the app to discover that Saturn as almost directly below my feet, on the other side of the solar system.  No ring watching for a while, as we’ll have to let the orbital paths of the planets bring us around to view Saturn during nighttime hours.  Yeah, there’s an app for that.

Space Cadet Jim, on deck and on duty.