How old is the moon? It’s a difficult question, more so given the experts aren’t even too sure themselves. Try four and half billion years as a starter, which is older than earth if that matters to you. Like house prices, some things are all relative. Another tricky question is: how did the moon happen? Something as dense as the moon, can only really come about after an event of serious significance. The moon is seriously dense, only trumped in the dense stakes by Jupiter, itself the largest planet in the solar system. Although given space is a bit of a nether region of human understanding, it’s not to say that Jupiter itself won’t one day be trumped by something yet to be seen by the boffins and their uber-binos. Many hypotheses on the origin of the moon abound, but the one that tends to attract the most agreement is that of the giant impact hypothesis, where basically a piece of rock the size of Mars smashed into earth and blasted all sorts of debris into the nearby surrounds. Debris doesn’t quite do the moon justice, but the moon as we know it, is thought to have been a bit of debris from this collision.
Back in the early days of the solar system, when planets had yet to find their now familiar orbits, collisions were rife. Yet the collision theory is not exactly an unanimously agreed upon theory. At a lunar conference in Hawaii a few years back the various views were thrown out to the audience of experts who then had to put up a show of hands for each competing explanation. Amidst the stifled silence, broken only by the quiet crinkle of crisp packet, there were essentially two groups. One who erred on the side of the computer simulations that suggested a giant impact, and another who basically squirmed in their seats and muttered they didn’t actually know. Whilst this was enough to wrap up the conference and enable the delegates to hit the bar and delight in whatever sins are to be found in Hawaii, there are still some scratchy issues with the impact theory, many of which relate to the actual composition of the moon. If a child asks though, you’re unlikely to be found out if you run with this one. Use maltesers if you have some to hand, which in turn can be used to distract attention and dodge being skewered by the inevitable follow-up question.
So what is the moon all about then, other than occasional misty eyed Christmas TV commercial from the cold fingered capitalists at John Lewis. The moon is well known amongst fishermen as being responsible for the ocean’s tides. The intensity of the moon’s gravitational pull from one side of the earth to the other is enough to leave any absent minded weekend cruiser caught short on an exposed sand bank. The tides are further magnified by other effects; things like the friction of the ocean floor, the inertia of water, and the depth of different ocean basins. The sun too has a similar effect as the earth whizzes around it, albeit not as strong as the moon. The delicate gravitational dance between the two is responsible for both spring and neap tides. All old hat to the seasoned fish baron.
The moon is also well known for the occasional eclipse, which occurs when the sun, earth, and moon are all lined up like ducks. A solar eclipse happens when the moon is between earth and the sun, whilst a lunar eclipse is – as you yourself might quickly surmise – occurs when the earth is the proverbial meat in a sun and moon sandwich. In such instances the sun and the moon appear to be the same size, but don’t be conned into thinking they are. The sun is about four hundred times bigger than the moon; it just so happens that it is also about four hundred times farther away. The solar eclipse is, though, on the way out. The distance between the moon and earth is slowly increasing and so it will, in time – call it a couple of hundred million years – no longer cover the sun completely. Get them while you can.
The moon has long been a source of endless fascination with Babylonian, Indian, and Chinese astronomers all having a go at calling the cycle of a lunar eclipse. In Aristotle’s 350BC seminal romp De Caelo et mundo which sets out the great man’s astronomical theory and musings on the terrestrial world, the moon was the wrought iron fence that marked the boundary between the spheres of the mutable elements – earth, water, air and fire – and the imperishable stars of the aether. It was a view that held sway for a good few years. Various observations followed from a rich seam of bearded astronomers, who spent weekend dog walks mulling the make-up of the lunar landscape, until the Cold War inspired the space race and a sharp clawed scrap between the USSR and the United States to be the first country to land a man on the moon.
The USSR’s Luna programme drew first blood, launching the first man made object far enough to escape the Earth’s gravity. Luna 1 was the first to run a fly-by past the moon, Luna 2 was the first to crash into it, and Luna 3 the first to send back a few grainy photos. Luna 10 was the first vehicle to drive all the way around the circumference of the moon, whilst Luna 16 even managed to bring back some soil samples. Yet for all their many achievements, the boffins at the USSR space centre were left kicking the cat and staring at some ominous looking P60 forms, as it was the US that actually won the race landing Neil Armstrong on the moon in 1969. His slightly ponderous steps were watched by more than 500m people with many quietly wondering how the devil he was going to find his way home. Armstrong’s small step for man effectively ended the space race. The moon remains to this day under the Outer Space Treaty, free to all nations with enough cash, spare time and technological nous to explore providing such efforts are for peaceful purposes only. Kim Jong-un, yes, you: Read the small print.
The link to the great Canadian, Sir Frederick Banting, is that somewhere on the moon’s surface there is the Banting crater. Named after the great man for his contribution to medicine. The New Year’s honours list is but a stepping stone for the true greats.
Fly me to the moon
Let me play among the stars
Let me see what spring is like on
A-Jupiter and Mars
In other words, hold my hand
In other words, baby, kiss me
Fill my heart with song and let me sing for ever more
You are all I long for
All I worship and adore
In other words, please be true
In other words, I love you
Fill my heart with song
Let me sing for ever more
You are all I long for, all I worship and adore
In other words, please be true
In other words, in other words
In other words
I love you
…. Go on, turn up the volume. Dance with the dog. No one is watching. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mQR0bXO_yI8