July 20 is National Moon Day, created in 2021 by the United Nations General Assembly not to celebrate what was probably the 20th century’s greatest achievement – man walking on the Moon – but for “international cooperation in the peaceful uses of outer space”. However, it also celebrates the Moon missions and its future exploration, with July 20 chosen as this marks the anniversary of Apollo 11’s Moon landing.
There is little light pollution where we live, so it is amazing to see the Moon and thousands of stars. Each year we watch the Perseids meteor showers, which are made up of space debris from the comet Swift-Tuttle. Occurring between July 17 and August 24, they peak this year on August 13, so make sure you look up at night to see up to 100 meteors an hour.
Sadly, due to light pollution in parts of the world, the starry sky is not visible. For example, over half the people in the UK are denied this beautiful sight.
So, what exactly is the Moon and how did it come about? One theory is that 4.5 billion years ago, the Earth crashed into another mass and the debris that subsequently orbited the Earth became the Moon, orbiting at around 3,700 kms an hour some 384,000 kms away.
NASA (US National Aeronautics and Space Administration) has registered 290 moons in our solar system with Earth having just one in comparison to Saturn’s 146!
Disappointingly, the Moon is not made of cheese! Its core is iron and the crust is made of magnesium, oxygen and silicon. It has traces of ice and water, but its surface is dust and rock debris marked with craters caused by collisions with comets, meteoroids and asteroids. It has almost no atmosphere and only one-sixth of Earth’s gravity, but as the Moon and Earth exert a gravitational pull on each other, this affects Earth’s tides causing bulges in the sea on the sides closest and farthest from the Moon, thus creating our daily high and low tides.
We always see the same side of the Moon because it rotates at the same rate that it revolves around the Earth. There are eight lunar phases from the invisible new Moon (because the side facing the Earth is dark) through to the bright full Moon. It takes 27.3 days for the full orbit around the Earth, but due to the way sunlight hits the Moon, it actually takes 29.5 days from one new Moon to the next.
As a result, the Moon has long been used by man to measure time. Stones from 32,000 B.C. depicting the lunar cycle have been found, indicating that the Aurignacian culture, located in Europe and Southeast Asian, charted the Moon phases, most likely to track animal migration for hunting. The Aurignacian Lunar calendar provided the basis for early calendars.
There are different full moon names relating to seasons or events across various cultures. Most known are the ‘Blood Moon’, which appears to be red during a total lunar eclipse when the Earth lines up between the Moon and the Sun leaving the Moon lit only by light from the edges of the Earth’s atmosphere; the ‘Super Moon’, when the Moon orbits 14,000 miles closer to Earth, making it appear much larger; the ‘Blue Moon’, which is not actually blue, occurring every 2.5 years as an extra full Moon in a calendar month; the ‘Harvest Moon’ occurring at the start of autumn and dating from farmers’ dependence on moonlight to harvest into the night.
It was in 1609 that Italian astronomer Galileo began his telescopic observations that changed man’s understanding of astrology but only in 1957 did the first spacecraft, USSR’s satellite Sputnik, orbit the Earth. The first man in space was Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin in 1961, which spurred President John Kennedy to launch the Apollo missions that began the space race between the two countries.
Americans Neil Armstrong and Edwin (Buzz) Aldrin became the first humans to land on the Moon on July 20, 1969, leading to Armstrong’s infamous quote “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”. They conducted experiments, collected soil and rocks, spoke with President Richard Nixon and left behind a plaque saying “Here men from the planet Earth first set foot on the Moon – July 1969 A.D. – We came in peace for all mankind.”
By 1972, another 10 American astronauts had walked on the Moon and nobody has been there since, although currently the US is planning to build a space station to orbit the Moon, China is planning a robotic research station and Japan and India are preparing lunar missions.
The live televised Moon landing was watched worldwide by almost 650 million people (one-sixth of the world population) on special public screens or gathered with those that had televisions. I was five years old and vaguely remember everyone excitedly watching the television we were privileged to have in our rented furnished home in Lisbon.
RTP, the Portuguese TV channel, ran a 15-hour programme and I like the awed broadcaster’s description “…its astronauts followed the route in the special sea navigating by the same stars that guided Christopher Columbus when he discovered America…”
The next day, the highly censored channel opened the news, not as expected headlining about this historic feat, but instead with film of President Américo Tomás opening a cement factory in Batalhas, because his public interactions always had to be first on the news!
Did you know that there really is a man on the moon? His name is Eugene Shoemaker, a geologist and pioneer of planetary science who named many of the Moon’s valleys, craters and mountains and prepared Apollo astronauts for its terrain. Therefore, it is appropriate that some of his ashes are ‘buried’ on the Moon, delivered there in 1998 in a capsule aboard the Lunar Prospector that was deliberately crashed on the Moon during its mapping mission.
Space burials are now possible, and you can choose the ‘Earth orbit plan’ where a symbolic portion of cremated ashes are sent into space before returning to Earth’s atmosphere, burning up and appearing briefly like a falling star, or get launched into the Milky Way and beyond. The first Moon burials are also scheduled for later this year. Prices are surprisingly affordable from 1,500USD to be a ‘star’ and approximately 12,000USD for the Moon burial. Flight schedules are available online and bookings are in advance with a Paypal deposit!
I like to look up at the starry sky and imagine the twinkling stars are deceased loved ones looking down. It seems that in the future this might not sound so unlikely after all!
So now you know!
Isobel Costa works full time and lives on a farm with a variety of pet animals! In her spare time, she enjoys photography, researching and writing.