Bad Astronomy

The Full Moon in Exquisite Detail

Full Moon by Fred Locklear
The Full Moon of May 25, 2013. Click to enselenate.

Photo by Fred Locklear, used by permission

Amateur astronomers—and I count myself among them; those of us who go out under the night sky and observe it just for the love and joy of it—often discount the Moon. Perhaps worse, and more unfairly, we actively dislike it: Its bright orb glows fiercely, washing out the fainter objects that are already difficult to see.

But the Moon is itself a target of interest and beauty. Every phase reveals new details on its surface, with hills, mountains, crater rims, and sinuous valleys casting shadows and revealing relief.

When the Moon is full, though, the Sun is shining straight down on it from our viewpoint. Shadows disappear, our perception of elevation is erased, and the flat disk looks eerie and more like the alien world it is.

“Amateur” astronomer Fred Locklear, aka zAmb0ni, used his 20 cm (8”) Celestron telescope to create the mosaic of the full Moon of May 25, 2013 at the top of this article, and it’s simply stunning. Mind you, I had to shrink it a lot to get it to fit here. A lot. The original image is 6000 x 6000 pixels, and scanning over it will feel like flying over the Moon’s surface. He created this picture using frames from video he shot through the telescope, taking the best ones to create the mosaic, and then doing some standard processing to clean and sharpen them.

One cool thing about the full Moon is that the angle of sunlight highlights features like ray patterns: collapsed plumes of dust and rock ejected from ancient impacts. This debris lies on Moon’s surface, forming long delicate fingers stretching away from craters. Over vast periods of time, sunlight and micrometeorite impacts darkens the dust, turning it gray like the rest of the surface, so young craters look fresher, brighter, as do their rays. They’re easy to spot all over the surface, but the king of them all is Tycho, at the Moon’s southern latitudes:

The crater Tycho on the Moon
Tycho, a 90-km-wide 100-million-year-old crater on the Moon.

Photo by Fred Locklear, used by permission

Even this shot was scaled down to fit here; again you should look at the full-size picture to grasp this. Tycho (the location of the Monolith excavation in the movie “2001”) is such an amazing crater that it’s one of my favorites to observe whenever it’s illuminated, but especially at full Moon. It’s truly a wonderful sight to see.

It’s easy to take for granted things we see all the time, especially the ones that might otherwise interfere with our plans. But sometimes it’s the obstacle itself that should be the goal.

Related posts:

Majestic Mountains of the Moon (featuring Tycho)
Hubble Shoots the Moon. Again. (also feat. Tycho)
The Extraordinary Face of the Moon
Side View of the Moon
Pow! ZOOM! To the Moon!
Celestron’s Capture the Universe 2010 Astrophoto winners!