Babe Among the Stars

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Galaxy Babe's column banner, showing a full moon and some little folk looking up at the sky

Mortal as I am, I know that I am born for a day. But when I follow at my pleasure the serried multitude of the stars in their circular course, my feet no longer touch the earth - Ptolemy

The Remarkable Remodelling Moon

Everyone knows that the Moon goes through phases gradually over the lunar month. From invisible at new to Cheshire cat grin impersonation through to half-moon, then full, and back again to waning crescent, it waxes and wanes over roughly 29.5 days with a reassuring constancy. The Full Moon, which always rises at sunset, has a different name according to which folklore you happen to be researching or following. The Moon's orbit is not perfectly circular, so sometimes it is closer, appearing larger, than others. Also, the Moon is moving away from Earth, but only by an extremely small amount, a few centimetres per year. Taking all that into account, we never see the same moon twice; each revolution presents us with a slightly different face, size and angle.

As the Moon orbits the Earth, so the Earth/Moon combination goes around the Sun. Sometimes the Moon happens to line up with the Sun, and dependant upon the position of the viewer on Earth, they could witness a partial or total solar eclipse. These are rare events, and so-called 'eclipse chasers' book hotel rooms in foreign climes years in advance to be sure of a ringside seat for a spectacle which lasts, at most, nine minutes; such is the allure of witnessing this phenomenon.

When the Moon is not eclipsing it acts like a mirror, reflecting the Sun's light. During a lunar eclipse, when the Earth passes between the Sun and the Moon, the Earth blocks out the sunlight, therefore we see the Moon in its natural state, a reddish-brown colour.

The Moon itself is a barren, hostile world. It is covered in craters like the Giordano Bruno Crater, which are caused by meteorite impacts. The craters can look different through a telescope depending upon from which angle the Sun is highlighting the surface, creating different shadowing effects.

The Moon's gravity is low, but it is enough to cause the ebb and flow of the tides on Earth, and some creatures have their lives ruled by this activity. For example, during low tide fiddler crabs darken in colour and venture out of their shelters. Then during high tide, they turn pale again and retreat back home. Inexplicably, the fiddler crabs continue this behaviour when removed from their ocean habitat, so one wonders if the fluctuation is caused by the tidal action, or the journey of the Moon across the sky?

The image of the Moon itself can have a stimulating effect upon human senses too. There's an aura of mystery about it, even though we know mankind has visited it, walked (and danced) upon its surface, collected samples of rock and dust for scientists to study and analyse, the Moon itself retains its mystique. We see the glowing orb as our ancestors saw it, so in a way the Moon is a time machine, connecting us with our past. Watching moonrise over a body of water is mesmerising as the shimmering ribbon of reflected light stretches across the surface like a lighthouse beam. That sunlight has travelled 93 million miles through space, hit a giant mirror and bounced back at us watchers on the Earth as moonlight. It's less than ten minutes since it left the surface of the Sun, and now here it is, dancing upon the waves for our delectation.

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