It’s our closest celestial neighbour, gave us our first ever calendars, dictates the timing of religious events like Easter and Ramadan, and was considered a deity in most ancient religions. Here are ten things you might never have guessed about the moon.
10. It doesn’t make us mad…
The words “lunatic,” “lunacy” and “loon” all come from the word “luna,” meaning moon. The moon’s effect on tides was noted as long ago as over 300 years BC, and the Ancient philosophers Aristotle and Pliny the Elder believed that the brain was mostly liquid, and that the full moon could cause tides in our brain, which would make us go temporarily insane. In popular culture and general belief, the full moon is a trigger for insanity. But there’s no scientific evidence that the lunar cycle has any effect on our behaviour. In the 1980’s, a psychologist and an astronomer teamed up to do what’s probably the most thorough investigation to date into whether the moon really does make us mad. They analysed 37 independent scientific studies and found absolutely no link between strange happenings and the phases of the moon.
9. …but we think it does
But if the moon doesn’t make us mad, why do so many of us think it does? Partly, Hollywood is to blame. With so many horror stories and movies of werewolves and witchcraft based around the full moon, it’s difficult not to get a bit subconsciously freaked out by it. Psychologists blame something called “illusory correlation” for our persisting beliefs that luna makes us lunatic. Illusory correlation happens where we think there’s a correlation even when it doesn’t exist, and one of the reasons we fall prey to it is that we remember events clearly whereas non-events fade into the background. So if we believe, even subconsciously, that people go a bit funny around the time of the full moon, and we see something that ‘proves’ that, we forget about all the times there was a full moon and nothing happened at all.
8. And the full moon does make things a bit weird
Werewolves might not be real, but at least one “wereplant” is. In the full moon, Ephedra foeminiea plants secrete a sugary liquid which shimmers in the moonlight, attracting insects which feed on the sugar and leave pollen behind, which E foeminiea then uses to fertilise its seeds.
And a study carried out by researchers at the University of Basel in Switzerland discovered that on full moon nights, people took longer to get to sleep, slept for a shorter time and reported that they “had not slept as well.” The study was carried out on volunteers who were shut away from natural light for days at a time, and so couldn’t know it was fill moon or be affected by the extra light. EEG readings from these volunteers showed that a type of brain wave called delta waves, which occur during deep sleep, were 30% lower when the moon was full.
There is a theory that in times gone by, when human lives were dictated by natural light, we wouldn’t have slept as well during the full moon, just like it isn’t easy to fall asleep in a bright room nowadays. A lot of mental illnesses can be exacerbated by sleep deprivation, so it follows that maybe the “lunar lunacy effect” was real once, even if it’s not real anymore.”
7. We’re not done discovering moons
By definition, a moon is an object locked in orbit around a planet, or even around an asteroid. While we have just one moon, there are at least 182 in our solar system. Mars has 2, Neptune has 14, Uranus 27, and Jupiter and Saturn have a staggering 67 and 62 moons respectively. Many dwarf bodies also have moons, and new moons are still being discovered. The last moon to be discovered was the 14th moon of Neptune, which was discovered by a team of researchers at the SETI institute on 15 July 2013, and is currently known as S 2004 N1 ahead of being officially named. Since the beginning of the 20th century, the International Astronomical Union has been responsible for naming any new moons. Before that, moons were generally named by the astronomers who discovered them, but not always – Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, was discovered in 1655 but not named until 1847.
6. We don’t know how the moon formed, but we think it might have been an astronomical car crash
The most widely accepted theory as to how our moon formed is the Giant Impact Hypothesis. As the Earth was forming, another planet called Theia, about the size of Mars, smashed into it. The Earth and the smaller planet (the impactor) fused together, and the collision would explain why the Earth is inclined at 23° rather than vertical. After the crash, a pile of debris was blasted off the Earth, which started to orbit due to the planet’s gravity and eventually coalesced to form the moon. This hypothesis is supported by the fact that many, but not all, of the most common chemical elements that make up the Earth are also found on the moon, and the similar age of the Earth and the moon. But there are other theories. Like that the moon formed somewhere else and was “captured” by the Earth’s gravity, or that the Earth captured several tiny planets (planetesimals) which coalesced to form the moon.
5. Our moon is unusually big, and nearly as old as we are
The Earth’s moon, Luna, is the fifth largest in the solar system. But of the eight largest moons in our solar system, seven of them orbit the “gas giants,” Jupiter and Saturn, the largest planets. In general, big moons orbit big planets and small moons circle small planets. Dactyl, a tiny moon that orbits an asteroid, is the smallest known moon, being less than a km in diameter. Luna’s total mass is 1.2% of the Earth’s, making it unusually large in relation to our planet.
Analysis of rock samples brought back from the Apollo missions means we know the surface of the moon is made up of the mineral plagioclase, which are the “highlands” or pale areas we can see, with darker “maria” or “seas” made of basalt lava. The oldest part of the moon is the highlands, and the oldest known moon rocks are 4.46 billion years old – almost but not quite as old as we are, with the Earth thought to be 4.56 billion years old. Both of these facts lend support to the Giant Impact Hypothesis.
4. Everyone thought the space race was a massive waste of time and money
For a human to walk on the moon was a sensational achievement- such an achievement, in fact, that many people believe it never happened and was staged as part of a Cold War propaganda conspiracy. Given the enormous success at the end, it’s easy to imagine that the whole world was moon mad – especially in the US, which had lost the first leg of the space race when Russia’s Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space. In fact, space flight was one of the top things Americans wanted cut in the 1960’s, with up to 66% of Americans believing that the government was spending too much money on it. At a time when people were living with the fear of real war from an enemy whose full capabilities were unknown, it’s probably unsurprising that sending people to the moon seemed a bit of a flight of fancy.
In 2013, NASA chief Charles Bolden announced that Americans would not return to the moon in his lifetime.
3. When the first astronauts landed, they must have thought they’d stepped into a horror movie
The moon looks beautiful when we see it from here – but in many ways it’s a hostile place, and Armstrong and Aldrin would be forgiven for thinking they’d stepped into a nightmare when they stepped off Apollo 11 in 1969. For a start, the moon is covered in a fine, glassy, electrically charged powder, moon dust, which NASA astronauts claim was the biggest problem with their missions. Moon dust was so abrasive it could erode its way through three layers of Kevlar-like material on astronauts’ boots, and could clog up the joints on space suits, leaving astronauts unable to move their arms. Moon dust found its way in to the spaceship on astronauts’ suits and caused “moon hay fever.” In 2008, a team of scientists and doctors confirmed that it is toxic to the lungs and might be one of the biggest barriers to long-term stays on the moon.
A less dangerous but no doubt just as alarming feature is the moon shadow. Shadows on the moon are much darker than on Earth, being almost but not quite pitch black. Astronauts report not being able to see their own hands and feet, and even more freakishly, a light halo appeared around their shadows.
And given that someone’s remains were scattered on the moon in 1998, and the US government considered detonating a nuclear bomb up there in a cold war show of strength (Project A119),the moon feels a bit creepy.
2. …but we might be able to live there, in readymade “underground shelters”
But despite all these dangers, we might be able to someday safely reside there.
It sounds like something from an Isaac Asimov book, but according to researchers at Purdue University, in theory, we could build underground cities on the moon. When a volcano erupts, lava freezes around the edge first, to form a pipe-like border while the lava underneath continues to flow. The eventual result is a hollow “lava tube.” These are present on Earth, but are likely to be much more stable on the moon, due to a much lower gravity and less erosion. Under lunar conditions, lava tubes of up to several kilometres wide and hundreds of metres high would be stable, and data from a recent Japanese mission, Kaguya, has shown that large underground caves do exist beneath the surface. If any of these caves turn out to be stable lava tubes, they could be, as Prof Jay Melosh put it, “readymade shelter from cosmic radiation and small meteor strikes… they would greatly decrease the cost of creating safe habitats on the moon.”
1. We also might be able to live on someone else’s moon
Life as we know it on Earth has some very specific requirements in terms of temperature, the presence of certain chemicals, and of course, liquid water. Many of the moons in the outer reaches of the solar system contain hydrocarbons (chemicals consisting of hydrogen and carbon, like glucose), which are essential to life. Unfortunately, they’re just too damn cold to live on, or so we thought until 2012, when scientists discovered that Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons, and Enceladus, which orbits Saturn, have liquid water. Even though they are a long way from the sun, their planets and the moons close to them have such strong gravitational pulls that they create tides, and this “tidal heating” warms up the inside of the moon enough to stop water from freezing. Maybe in the future the International Astronomical Union will have to go beyond naming moons, and start designating postcodes as well.