Image: Laser beams aimed at the moon
Two green laser beams flash up toward the moon from the Laser Ranging Facility at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center during a moon-observing party on Saturday night. Such rangefinding procedures help determine the position of NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter accurately with relation to the moon.
updated 9/19/2010 3:22:27 PM ET 2010-09-19T19:22:27

At first it seemed as if rain would spoil everything. But despite early threats of foul weather, the clouds parted right on time, and 8-year-old Alexandra Chin along with hundreds of other skywatchers took a long, deep look at the moon on Saturday.

"It looks even closer when you get to see the craters," Alexandra said.

Chin and her family were just a few of the 500 people who turned out here at NASA's Ames Research Center to peer through telescopes, picnic on the grass and listen to talks about the moon during the first International Observe the Moon Night, a global skywatching event to spur public interest in the moon with almost 400 venues scheduled in 30 different countries.

"This is fantastic," said Sandra Chin, Alexandra's mother. She had brought her three children to the Ames center from nearby Foster City to see the moon. "The kids are amazed. They're very surprised that they can see planets, not just the moon."

Alexandra and her siblings observed the moon through one of the 25 or so telescopes set up by amateur astronomers on a big patch of grass.

At Ames, in the heart of Silicon Valley, clouds hung around for much of the afternoon, threatening to cast a pall over the moon and the event. But the sky cleared around dusk, yielding brilliant views of the moon, Jupiter and Venus that were only occasionally spoiled by a white Farmers Insurance blimp cruising overhead.

The event's organizers were pleased with the turnout, especially since weather forecasts all week had predicted rain.

"Our local amateur astronomers came out, the public came out," said Brian Day, education and public outreach lead for NASA's Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer mission. "It really shows the level of interest here in the community."

The moon also did not disappoint skywatchers overseas. In the United Kingdom, Andrew Brown of Ashford, Kent, ventured outside, camera in hand, to gaze at the moon. [Moon photo by Andrew Brown]

Image: Moon
Andrew Brown
British skywatcher Andrew Brown captured this picture of the moon during International Observe the Moon Night.

"I was on my own, but still wanted to participate and [was] pleased the weather did cooperate," Brown said in an e-mail. "It is expected that rain will be arriving soon here."

Moon-watchers' delight
As darkness fell at Ames, skywatchers lined up at the telescopes, forming lines that in some cases were 40 people deep.

After children took their turn at the eyepiece, many ran about on the grass, blowing the whistle keychains that event organizers had handed out. The high-pitched din from hundreds of whistles, peeping intermittently but incessantly, sounded like a tree frog mating chorus, or an unhappy crowd at a European soccer match.

Those eager for some harder science wandered over to a floodlit patch of grass away from the telescopes, where researchers discussed recent discoveries about the moon. The speakers were David Morrison, former director of NASA's Lunar Science Institute; Barry Blumberg, a Nobel laureate and former director of the NASA Astrobiology Institute; and Greg Delory, deputy project scientist of the LADEE mission. [10 Coolest New Moon Discoveries]

Dozens of people listened intently, though they sometimes had to strain to hear the scientists above the shrieking of whistles.  

A lunar night out
The Ames Research Center was one of three NASA space centers that welcomed moon-watchers for the night of lunar appreciation in addition to the other events. NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., and the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., also opened their doors.

"Everyone is getting a great look at the moon tonight," said Rob Suggs, manager of the Lunar Impact Monitoring Project at the Marshall Center. "I think for sure we'd like to do this again."

More than 250 people turned out to the U.S. Space & Rocket Center near the Marshall Space Flight Center to drink in views of the moon and listen to scientists discuss the latest lunar discoveries, such as the results from NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and others.

With a clear sky overhead, skywatchers got a clear view of the moon's famed Tycho crater and its tendrils of raylike features, as well as Plato and Copernicus craters, Suggs told NASA scientists also focused telescopes on the moon's terminator — the border between the illuminated and darkened parts of the moon as seen from Earth.

"A lot of people were surprised at how rough the terminator is because of the topography of the moon," said Barbara Cohen, a lunar scientist at Marshall, in an interview. "It's not like a smooth billiard ball."

At the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, attendees got a chance to watch scientists fire lasers at the moon as part of an ongoing work to determine the precise location of the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. Photos from the event showed visitors peering through telescopes, using touch displays to see pictures of the lunar surface and holding moon rocks.

The moon's appeal appears to have been growing lately among scientists and the public after a series of new international missions from the Japan, China, India and the United States.

"It seems to me that the moon is more of an international place," Suggs said. "It is not just for the U.S. or Russia. It's for everyone." Managing Editor Tariq Malik contributed to this report from New York City.

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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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