A Beginner’s Guide to Watching the Moon

Moon gazing has been a human pastime for as long as there were humans. It is easy to see why. Looking at the night sky, the Moon is the brightest, most powerful object up there. It is easy to see why the ancients felt that the Moon had power over men.

We now live in a world where man has set foot on the Moon, but every person still feels a sense of awe when gazing at that bright shining rock in the sky.

Moon Gazing Equipment

Unlike most other objects in the night sky, it is possible to study the Moon in some detail without the assistance of any specialised equipment. However, using either binoculars or a telescope can significantly enhance your experience.

Binoculars

Binoculars can be useful in all space-viewing. However, they can often be a burden as well. Because you hold binoculars with your hand, it can often be challenging to keep your focus when viewing small objects. However, due to the size of the Moon, it is much easier to see with binoculars than other celestial bodies.

Binoculars are essentially two small telescopes placed next to each other, one for each eye. It allows you to view the Moon with both eyes, unlike it is possible with a telescope. However, they are smaller binoculars will not be able to give you the same amount of aperture you could get with a telescope, and thus offer less clear views of the Moon. The plus side is they are much easier to handle than a telescope, and also much cheaper, in the $50 to $100 for a good pair.

Telescopes

A telescope will offer the best view of the Moon. By amplifying light and magnifying the image of the Moon, views through a telescope are nothing short of spectacular.

A good telescope will cost significantly more than a good pair of binoculars, starting in about the $300 range. If you are serious about moon gazing, or an amateur in astronomy in general, then a telescope would be an excellent purchase to make.

The Man in the Moon

Humanity has long noted that the Moon only ever shows us one side. Since the Moon rotates on its axis at the same time as it orbits the Earth, it would seem evident that we should be able to see the entire Moon during the lunar cycle.

It is not the case. As the Moon is rotating on its axis and orbiting the Earth, the Earth is also rotating on its axis. As we both turn, it causes the situation where we can only ever see one face of the Moon. The ancients, staring up at this same face over long periods of the time thought that there might be a face evident there, a man living in the Moon. Stories about the opposite side of the Moon (the “dark side” of the Moon) also arose into popular mythology. Today men have visited the far side of the Moon, although we still cannot see it from Earth.

The single face of the Moon does provide for exciting viewing, however. Because we only ever see the one front, we know that what we are looking at is not going to change. The craters that we see tonight will be in the same place tomorrow night. It offers a beautiful continuity to our viewing.

Phases of the Moon

The phases of the Moon correspond reasonably well with the month: about one full complete lunar cycle every month. It is by design: the ancients when designing the calendar designed the month to follow the period of the Moon. (Even our word, month, comes from the word Moon).

The average lunar cycle lasts 29 days, 12 hours and 44 minutes. It causes by the fact that, as the Moon orbits around the Earth, the light of the Sun is hitting it at different angles. There is always light hitting the moon. However, we are not still able to see it.

During the new Moon, the Moon lies between Earth and the Sun. We are unable to see the light reflecting off of the Moon because it is indicating away from us, the side of the Moon we see is in darkness.

When the Moon is full, we are in between the Moon and the Sun. We can see the whole light reflecting from the Moon.

The lunar cycle has four phases or quarters:

  • New Moon Beginning of the period, Moon is not visible.
  • Waxing Crescent Moon As Moon revolves, a crescent of light is seen growing from the right side.
  • First Quarter In the first quarter the Moon is half full.
  • Waxing Gibbous During this time the Moon is growing ever more and more full, the darkness receding to the left side of the Moon.
  • Full Moon Halfway through the lunar cycle, the whole light of the Moon is visible.
  • Waning Gibbous The Moon now begins to grow darker with each passing day, the darkness approaching from the right.
  • Last Quarter In the previous quarter Moon it is once again half full.
  • Waning Crescent The light of the Moon is now dwindling until it is almost entirely dark, starting the cycle again.

You might think that the full Moon is the best time for Moon gazing. However, this assumption is incorrect. The best time to watch the Moon is during the first and last quarters of the cycle.

At these times, sunlight is hitting the Moon at sharp angles, providing the deepest shadows on the Moon’s craters and other formations. It provides the sharpest definition for the many amazing features of the Moon, in detail that you cannot see during the full Moon. It is best to look at the edge of where the Moon becomes light from the darkness, as this will provide the sharpest shadows for your viewing.

Moon Made of Green Cheese?

In popular mythology going back ages, the people think Moon is made from green cheese. We know today that this is most certainly not the case, but many people are not exactly sure what element Moon is consists.

When we look at the Moon, we see two primary colourations: a light greyish colour and a darker almost bluish-greyish colour, popularly known as the “seas” of the Moon.

The light grey areas are the crust leftover from the formation of the Moon, about three and a half billion years ago to four billion years ago.

The dark grey areas, on the other hand, are volcanic rock. Billions of years ago there were many volcanoes on the Moon, and they changed the surface of the Moon. This rock is much like volcanic rock you would find on Earth today in a place like Hawaii, only much older.

One of the reasons that the green cheese myth was so popular was the appearance of pockmarks and other shapes on the Moon’s surface. These are craters caused by meteorites striking the Moon’s face.

Three and half billion years ago, our little corner of the solar system was a much more violent place. Huge meteors and meteorites filled the sky, and a high number of these crashed into the Moon, forever changing its surface. Some of these craters are hundreds of miles wide!

Fortunately for us, the Earth was not nearly as devastated by meteorites as was the Moon. For one thing, the Moon served as somewhat of a buffer, protecting us from many of the meteors. We also have a much thicker atmosphere than the Moon, so it is much more difficult for meteorites to strike the surface of the Earth, they will most likely burn up or disintegrate in the entry.

Getting Started

Getting started in becoming a Moon watcher is easy. Next time you can see the Moon, stand outside and start watching it. Study it in real detail see what formations you can pick out, try to find anything that you can. Gazing at the Moon with the naked eye is the best way to start watching the Moon.

Once you have begun watching for a while, try purchasing a good pair of binoculars or a telescope. That will enhance your pleasure significantly as you watch the Moon pass through the night sky. You will be able to see larger images in greater detail, and indeed begin your study of the Moon in earnest.

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