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More Reflections on the Moon

by Geoff Chester, USNO Public Affairs | 17 April 2024

by Geoff Chester, USNO Public Affairs | 17 April 2024

Apollo 16, outbound to the Moon, 1972 April 16
Imaged at the Kennedy Space Center Press Site with an 89mm f/18 Questar Field Model
Maksutov-Cassegrain telescope, Nikon F SLR camera body, Kodak Ektachrome 160 film

The Moon waxes as she starts to slide southward along the ecliptic, passing through the springtime constellations as she waxes to Full Moon on the 23rd, occurring at 7:49 pm Eastern Daylight Time. April’s Full Moon is known in North American folklore as the Pink Moon due to the pink phlox flowers that once bloomed over the vast mid-western plains. Anglo-Saxons called it the Egg Moon, while the Celts knew it variously as the Budding Moon or Growing Moon. Native Americans called it the Breaking Ice Moon.

The Moon pretty much dominates the overnight skies this week. She no longer has to compete with the bright winter constellations except during the early evening hours, and there are only a handful of bright spring stars to attract your gaze. As the saying goes, if you have lemons, make lemonade. Another saying among amateur astronomers is that the Moon is looked over, then overlooked. It’s a great week to study the battered surface of our only natural satellite, and you don’t need a big telescope to do so. My favorite views of Luna are through my 4-inch refractor, and on mild spring nights I like to quietly look for subtle details that I may not have noticed before. With thousands of craters, cracks, mountains, and plains, there is a lot of real estate to explore.

And explore we once did. 52 years ago today I found myself just over three miles from the vapor-spewing Saturn V rocket that was to launch Apollo 16 to the Moon. As the giant rocket came to life with a blinding flash of flame and giant clouds of water vapor from the flame trench, it majestically began to lumber into the sky. 15 seconds later it had traveled twice its length and the sound of the first-stage engines hit the viewing area. Less than a minute later it was high in the sky, accelerating toward a small “window” in space that would allow it to eventually put three astronauts in orbit around the Moon. It was a sight I’ll never forget.

I am often asked at star parties whether I can see the Apollo landing sites. Through the telescope the Moon appears so close, but in reality it’s still very far away. If my telescope can magnify at a power of 200X, it would be equivalent to the naked eye appearance of Luna’s surface from a distance of 1200 miles! On nights of exceptional clarity and steadiness, I’d be lucky to see a one-mile diameter crater in my telescope.

You can spot a few of the brighter spring stars near the Moon this week. On the 17th and 18th look for Regulus, the “heart” of Leo, the Lion. On the 22nd, the bright star Spica in Virgo lies less than a degree south of Luna. There is one star, though, that shines brightly despite bright moonlight. This is Arcturus, which is high in the east during the mid-evening. Arcturus is the brightest star in the sky’s northern hemisphere, and it is the fifth-brightest in the entire sky. It has a cheery rosy tint that tells astronomers that it is a “red giant” star, in the elderly branch of its evolution. It is the closest star of its kind to the solar system, just under 37 light years distant.

If you want to track down some planets, be prepared to look in both evening and morning twilight. Jupiter can be spotted in the western sky shortly after sunset, but he sets near the end of evening astronomical twilight. His bright glow still dominates this part of the sky, but you will have to catch him early.

If you’re up before the Sun, look for Saturn and Mars low on the eastern horizon as twilight gathers. The two planets aren’t as bright as Old Jove, but they are close to each other as the week begins. Mars pulls away from Saturn, leaving the ringed planet in his wake as next week arrives.


Commander, Naval Meteorology and Oceanography Command | 1100 Balch Blvd. | Stennis Space Center, Mississippi 39529

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