Photos: 50 years of views from the moon

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  1. Up-close exploration of the moon, Earth's only natural satellite, began in 1959 when the Soviet Union launched its Luna 1 spacecraft on a flyby mission. NASA quickly followed up with missions of its own. Since then, the Europeans, Japan, China and India have launched their own lunar exploration programs. This view shows the moon as seen from the international space station. Click the "Next" arrow above to check out 11 images from the moon made over the last 50 years. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. 1959: Far side in full view

    In October 1959, the Soviet Union's Luna 3 spacecraft - the third successfully launched to the moon - made history as the first probe to image the far side of the moon. The photos were fixed and dried on the spacecraft and beamed back to Earth. Though fuzzy by today's standards, the images showed stark differences from the near side, including relatively few dark areas, called lunar maria. (RSA via NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. 1966: A restored ‘Earthrise'

    In 1966 and 1967, NASA sent a series of Lunar Orbiter spacecraft to collect detailed images of moon's surface in preparation for the Apollo program. The tapes were then put in storage. Decades later, researchers with the Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project collected the vintage hardware required to play back the imagery. That imagery was digitized , reproducing the images at a much higher resolution than previously possible. On Nov. 11, 2008, the project researchers released this enhanced photograph of Earth rising above the lunar surface, originally made by Lunar Orbiter 1 in 1966. (LOIRP / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. 1968: The most famous 'Earthrise'

    On Christmas Eve 1968, Apollo 8 astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and William Anders made history as the first humans to orbit the moon. They were scouting its surface for a suitable landing spot for future missions. But the sight of Earth rising above the moon's horizon caught their - and the world's - attention. The photograph, called "Earthrise," is among the most famous ever made from the moon. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. 1969: One small step

    On July 20, 1969, an estimated 1 billion people around the world were glued to television screens to watch astronaut Neil Armstrong, commander of Apollo 11, climb down from the lunar module spacecraft for a stroll on the moon. As his foot touched the lunar surface, he famously said "That's one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind." This image is a black-and-white reproduction from the telecast, showing Armstrong stepping down from the lunar module's ladder. (NASA Johnson Space Center) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. 1969: Man on the moon

    Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin, shown here, accompanied Armstrong for the famous walk on the moon. This iconic image is one of the few that shows Armstrong on the lunar surface - as seen in the reflection on the spacesuit's visor. The astronauts walked around on the lunar surface for about two and a half hours. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. 1994: Looking for ice

    This mosaic image of the moon's southern polar region, made by the Clementine spacecraft in 1994, suggested that the region could harbor water ice within regions of its craters that are never lit by the sun. The water ice would be left over from impacting comets. Scientists have debated the evidence for and against water ice at the poles ever since the Clementine discovery. The current era of lunar exploration could resolve the debate. If water ice exists, it could help quench the thirst of future human colonists and be used to make fuel for rockets. (NASA / JPL / USGS) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. 2006: European moon probe crashes

    On Sept. 3, 2006, the European Space Agency's SMART-1 spacecraft went out with a bang - a planned crash landing into a volcanic plain called the Lake of Excellence. The impact, shown here, was captured by the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope. (The black lines are a processing error due to the brightness of the event.) The spacecraft was launched in 2003 primarily to test an ion propulsion system, which uses energy captured by the sun to produce a stream of charged particles. The slow-and-steady propulsion system may be used on future interplanetary missions. (Christian Veillet / CFHT via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. 2007: China targets the moon

    China made its first major strides in the lunar exploration game with the launch of the Chang'e 1 spacecraft in October 2007. The orbiter was sent to make a detailed, 3-D map of the moon's surface. Premier Wen Jiabao unveiled the first image at a ceremony in Beijing, shown here. Chang'e 1's 16-month mission ended with a controlled crash. The country reportedly plans to launch lunar rovers in 2010 and 2017, and a manned mission to the moon by 2020. (Huang Jingwen / XINHUA NEWS AGENCY) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. 2008: India joins the lunar club

    The Indian Space Research Organization successfully launched its Chandrayaan 1 spacecraft on Oct. 22, 2008, for a mapping mission to the moon. A probe released from the mothership took this picture of the lunar surface during its descent to a planned crash landing at the south pole. The Indian space agency plans to use this and other data for a lunar rover mission in 2011 and, eventually, a manned mission. (ISRO via EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. 2009: Japan orbiter watches eclipse

    Some eclipse enthusiasts travel the globe to glimpse alignments of the sun, Earth and moon. Japan's Kaguya probe did them one better: It shot this sequence of a Feb. 10, 2009, eclipse from its lunar orbit. The image shows the view of the sun from the moon mostly covered by Earth. The "ring" appears dark at the bottom because it is obscured by the night-darkened limb of the moon. The Kaguya orbiter was launched in September 2007 to study the moon's origin and evolution. It made a controlled crash landing on the moon in June 2009. (JAXA / NHK) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. 2009: NASA goes back to the moon

    On June 18, 2009, NASA launched two spacecraft to the moon to map its surface in unprecedented detail, scout for future landing sites, and smash probes into a permanently shaded crater in hopes of resolving a longstanding debate over whether such regions contain water ice. NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter will orbit both poles for a year, and its mission could be extended to serve as a communications relay for future lunar missions. This is one of the first pictures sent back by the orbiter. LRO's sibling, the crater-smacking LCROSS probe, is due to impact the moon's south pole in October. (NASA / GSFC / ASU) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. NASA
    Above: Slideshow (12) 50 years of moon shots
  2. Image:
    Y. Beletsky / ESO
    Slideshow (12) Month in Space
updated 8/23/2010 5:14:43 PM ET 2010-08-23T21:14:43

The moon reaches full phase Tuesday. But as far as full moons go, it's not the most impressive. In fact, it's the smallest full moon of the year.

About 13 hours after it's officially full, the moon will arrive at the point in its orbit farthest from Earth (called apogee), a distance of 252,518 miles (406,389 kilometers). The moon's apparent angular size that night will be at a minimum in 2010.

Though the casual viewer may not notice the difference, the Aug. 24 moon will appear 12.3 percent smaller than the full moon of Jan. 30, which nearly coincided with perigee — the moon's closest point in its orbit relative to Earth. [Moon Mechanics]

Observing the moon
When is the best time to observe the moon with a telescope? Most astronomy neophytes might say during full phase, but that's probably the worst time. The moon tends to be dazzlingly bright as well as appearing one-dimensional.

The intervals when the moon is at or just past first-quarter and last-quarter phases are when we get the best views of the landscape right along the moon's sunrise-sunset line, or terminator. [Skywatcher's Guide to the Moon] (The terminator can also be defined as that variable line between the illuminated portion and the part of the moon in shadow.)

Along with the fact that a half moon offers more viewing comfort to the eye than a full moon does, we can see a wealth of detail on its surface using a telescope with relatively small optical power (magnifications of 20 to 40 power), or even good binoculars. Around those times when the moon is half-lit or in the gibbous phase (as it will be next weekend), those features lying close to the terminator stand out in sharp, clear relief.

The moon was at first-quarter phase on Aug. 16 at 2:14 p.m. ET. That was the moment when its disk was exactly 50 percent illuminated. Lunar mountains became visible as the sun lit them from the right.

How bright it is
How does brightness of a half moon compare with that of full? Most would probably think it's half as bright, but astronomers tell us the half moon of the first quarter is only one-eleventh as bright as full. This is due to the fact that it is heavily shadowed, even on its illuminated half. Believe or not, it isn't until just 2.4 days before full that the moon actually becomes half as bright as when it's full.

A full moon is almost completely illuminated, especially right around its center; the sun shines straight into all the microscopic crevices, and perhaps except for around the immediate edges, you will find no visible shadows at all.

Finally, have you ever noticed that when artists portray the moon, they invariably seem to show it as either a slender crescent or full? Half moons are shown far less frequently, and gibbous moons are rarely depicted at all. Ansel Adams' famous photograph "Autumn moon" is an outstanding exception, involving a waxing gibbous moon that Adams imaged from Yosemite National Park's Glacier Point in California back in September 1948.

What 'gibbous' means
The word "gibbous" is derived from the Latin word "gibbus," meaning "hump." An unusual word to be sure, but in describing the moon between half and full, it's the correct term.

The gibbous moon also is the most-seen phase, occurring for the half month between first and last quarter. Because it is in the sky for more than half the night, we're more apt to see the gibbous moon.

In fact, it is even visible during the daytime hours. That will be the case just after sunrise on the weekend following the full moon. In contrast, the oft-pictured crescent moon is visible only during the early evening or early morning hours, and sometimes only briefly.

Joe Rao serves as an instructor and guest lecturer at New York's Hayden Planetarium. He writes about astronomy for The New York Times and other publications, and he is also an on-camera meteorologist for News 12 Westchester, New York.

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