Science

Why are we always so fascinated by the moon

In conjunction with the launch of NASA’s Artemis 1 mission to the Moon this month, Space.com analyzes what we know about the Moon and why we care. Join our special Lunar Week Countdown to Artemis 1 report.

About 4.5 billion years ago, a Mars-sized celestial body called Theia crashed into the young, molten Earth, nearly destroying the planet. But from the debris created by this cataclysm, a new Earth was formed – and our Moon too. (At least, that is the current leading theory for the formation of the Moon.)

When humanity finally came to its senses, the moon became the object of our greatest admiration. As an ever-present yet ever-changing object in the sky, it’s no surprise that ancient cultures around the world took an interest in the moon, incorporating it into all sorts of myths and legends. From the Greek goddess Selene to the Chinese goddess Chang’e, moon deities have been a common sight throughout human history.

But ancient cultures also saw the moon as a practical tool. While sunrise and sunset mark the passage of one day, the lunar cycle lasts more than 29.5 days, or about a month. Naturally, this is a useful way to measure the passage of time. Many of the indigenous peoples of North America, for example, named each full moon after the seasonal phenomena associated with it, from the bloom and harvest of flora to the behavior of fauna. And we still use those names.

Related: The Complete Guide to Moon Watching

While there is evidence that ancient astronomers contemplated the Moon—the Greek philosopher Anaxagoras hypothesized that the Moon was rocky and Earth-like in the fifth century BC—the modern era of astronomy began with the development of the telescope in the 17th century. This invention opened the door to a deeper curiosity about the moon.

The first telescopes were not particularly powerful – the first Galileo only had a 3x magnification. Because the Moon is the closest celestial body to us, it is easiest to study with less powerful telescopes, and so from the 17th century to the early 20th century, the Moon was the focus of astronomers who drew maps of its surface and eventually even photographed it.

During this period, science fiction writers even indulged in some lunar amusements. In the 16th century, Johannes Kepler wrote the novel Somnium, a kind of proto-science fiction that explored what the Earth might look like from the moon. Cyrano de Bergerac then wrote Underworld: A Comic History of the States and Empires of the Lunar World, in which the protagonist, also named Cyrano, attempts to fly to the moon to meet its inhabitants. By 1902, science fiction had moved from the written word to the movie screen with Georges Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon or A Trip to the Moon.

Then fantasy became reality during the space race. Although the intense competition between the United States and the then Soviet Union had its origins in nuclear warfare using ballistic missiles, the targets soon expanded to spaceflight, culminating in the first artificial satellite Sputnik in 1957 and then the United States. landing on the moon in 1969. The fascination with the Moon during this period was associated with national pride and human achievement.

Astronaut Neil Armstrong on the surface of the Moon during the Apollo 11 flight in July 1969. (Image credit: NASA)

NASA’s Apollo program became a global phenomenon: when Apollo 11 landed on the Moon in 1969, approximately 650 million people tuned in to the television broadcast, according to NASA. The five additional Apollo missions that followed ignited a new obsession with the Moon and allowed a new science to begin by bringing moon rocks to laboratories on Earth.

Some of these stones have had more dramatic adventures. The US government donated some of the Apollo astronaut booty as diplomatic gifts to states and peoples, but decades later, up to 150 of them have gone missing.

“Some are so enamored with having something brought by humanity from space that they are willing to steal it, possess it,” Joseph Guteinz, an attorney who once served as an undercover agent for NASA to recover stolen moon rocks, told Space. com.

After the Apollo era, the obsession with the Moon faded to some extent, especially as NASA focused on other avenues of space exploration and exploration such as the International Space Station (ISS) and rovers.

The Chinese lunar module Chang’e 5 took this image shortly after landing on the Moon on December 1, 2020. (Image credit: CNSA/CLEP)

But now interest in the moon has been renewed not only in the United States, but in countries around the world. Two countries currently have spacecraft on the lunar surface or in orbit: China operates two landers as well as the Yutu-2 rover on the far side of the Moon, and India’s Chandrayaan-2 spacecraft is in orbit. South Korea’s Danuri orbiter is now on its way to the Moon, and several other countries are planning to launch lunar missions in the coming years, including Japan, Russia and the United Arab Emirates.

NASA is also returning to the scene of one of its greatest achievements. The launch of the Artemis 1 mission is scheduled for August. 29 and usher in a new era of lunar craze. Although this mission does not require a crew, astronauts will fly Artemis 2; Artemis 3 will return humans to the Moon for the first time since the departure of Apollo 17 in 1972.

And this time we will stay forever: NASA intends to build a permanent base on the Moon, as well as an orbital station called the Moongate, which will be the starting point for new manned missions to deep space, including to Mars. in the coming decades.

“The moon is the source of miracles for most,” Guteinz said. “Just beyond our collective understanding, except for a few, this is a harsh, lifeless world, like a blank canvas. A canvas waiting to be touched by an artist.”

As part of the Artemis program, these artists prepare their brushes.

Follow Stefanie Waldek on Twitter @StefanieWaldek. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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