Roaming the Cosmos – Copernicus, Ocean of Storms, Luna

Congratulations! You are now a space-faring species.

No doubt you’ve discovered your Earth is but a small stage in a vast cosmic arena. This may give you the desire to strike out your own and go where the solar wind takes you.

But let’s not get too ambitious just yet. Before we start star-hopping, let us begin a bit closer to home. After all, there’s so much to see in your own planetary system.

Many of you already have been to your moon, Luna. (Yes! Like the planets of your solar system, it does have a Latin name, though “The Moon” is acceptable.) Indeed, it is the most commonly visited location by humans outside of Earth. Of course, it’s the most commonly visited location because it is the only place you’ve been.

But what a place! Just listen to these testimonials from past moon visitors:

109:43:18 Armstrong: Isn’t that something! Magnificent sight out here.
109:43:24 Aldrin: Magnificent desolation. (Long Pause)
Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, Apollo 11 transcript

“As I stand out here in the wonders of the unknown at Hadley (lunar region), I sort of realize there’s a fundamental truth to our nature. Man must explore. And this is exploration at its greatest.”
David Scott, Apollo 15 transcript

“I think the thing that impressed me the most was the Lunar’s sunrises and sunsets. These in particular bring out the stark nature of the terrain… The horizon here is very, very stark, the sky is pitch black and the earth, or the moon rather, excuse me, is quite light, and the contrast between the sky and the moon is a vivid dark line.”
Bill Anders, Apollo 8 telecast from lunar orbit, December 24, 1968

With so much to see on just your moon, what spot should you pick for your visit? Our recommendation: Copernicus!

Copernicus a massive crater near the center of the “Ocean of Storms.” (Look at the moon; the Ocean of Storms is that really big dark splotch on the left). It’s not an ocean in the sense you’re used to. The mass of dihydrogen monoxide that covers most of your planet moves. This ocean doesn’t, though some ancient astronomers thought it did. They were accidentally right in one sense. At one point the Ocean of Storms did move because the darker portions of Luna are solidified pools of ancient basaltic lava.

The surrounding basalt plains highlight the size and complexity of Copernicus. It is ninety-three kilometers wide, with walls reaching four kilometers into the black sky. Those walls are terraced, creating a complex overlay of rock expanding out in concentric circles that crest and then fall into a thirty-kilometer-wide rampart descending to the “ocean” floor.

The rough edges at the rim of the crater can cast long, beautiful shadows when the sun is just right. And with no air to scatter light, these are shadows of pitch black, like blades of nothing creeping across the crater floor.

Travel tip: Be careful where you stand! There is a 250-degree difference between sun and shade on the moon (roughly 100 degrees C and –150 degrees C). We advise proper hot and/or cold gear depending on the time of moon-day. We would also advise against jumping back and forth between shade and sun, as it will do little to solve the problem.

Of course, that might cause you to work up an appetite! If you’re looking for a great place to picnic, we suggest choosing one of the three mountains that formed in the center of the crater following impact. The tallest stands more than a kilometer high and should provide great views of the surrounding lunar landscape.

Wherever you sit for your meal, do be careful not to disturb the ground too much. Due to the preserving vacuum of space, every footprint is permanent. So at least bring a blanket to sit on, avoid accidental trampling, and please, please, please resist the temptation to leave intentional markings. The luminous immortals that will replace the human race eons in the future need not know that “Jeff wuz here.”

This is not to say the surface of the moon never changes. Indeed, Copernicus’s serrated edges and pristine peaks are present because it was so recently formed… only eight hundred million years ago! (Give or take.) It came to be when an asteroid struck the moon, sending volcanic basalt flying over eight hundred kilometers from the point of impact. Falling ejecta from the initial blast created thirteen surrounding craters of three kilometers or greater in diameter… giving you plenty of interesting features to look at!

Like most rocks in most solar systems, Luna has a violent history. The moon itself was created by a great impact. Most evidence on the subject points toward a massive collision between your Earth and an object roughly the size of Mars that occurred approximately four and a half billion years ago, not long after the Earth first coalesced out of the protoplanetary disk surrounding the young sun. Thus Earth, thus moon, thus Copernicus, thus your next vacation destination.

If you travel to Copernicus, you’ll be the first of your species, or any species, to stand on that spot (and, obviously, also the first to have a nice lunch on that spot). This was nearly not the case. The crater was a possible landing site for the canceled Apollo 18 mission. Apollo 17 was the last to visit the moon and no human has set foot on Earth’s natural satellite since 1972.

It is also an appropriately named place to begin our journey. The crater is named for Nicolaus Copernicus (1473 – 1543). The Renaissance mathematician was the first to create a fully predictive model of the universe that did not have Earth at its center.

He was not the first to speculate this. The earliest known scientist to present a heliocentric (sun-center) model of the universe was ancient Greek astronomer Aristarchus of Samos (c. 310 – c. 230 BCE). But Copernicus was the first to create a workable model with the sun squarely in the center.

The sun is, of course, not the center of the universe. Due to its expansion from a singularity there is no “center of the universe.” There’s just the universe. And there are wonders out there to find.

Sources/Additional Reading:

Douglas Adams and the Cult of 42,” The Guardian, February 3, 2011

Douglas Adams’ speech at Digital Biota 2, Cambridge U.K., September 1998

Exoplanet discovery rate goes from a trickle to a flood,” Ars Technica, February 26, 2014

NASA Exoplanet Archive

Apollo 18 through 20 – The Canceled Missions – NASA

Gazetteer of Planetary Nomenclature – FAQ

Apollo 11 Lunar Surface Journal – One Small Step

Temperature of the Moon,” Universe Today, October 13, 2008

Space: A New Look at Copernicus,” Time, December 9, 1966

Copernicus Crater Central Peak: Lunar Mountain of Unique Composition,” Science, January 1, 1982

Origin of the Moon in a giant impact near the end of the Earth’s formation,” Nature, August 16, 2001

Photograph No. 1: Lunar Orbiter 4, Photograph No. 2: Lunar Orbiter 2, Photograph No. 3: Apollo 12

[Note: As work of the U.S. Government, all NASA photos are in the public domain.]

[Note: No, seriously, go check. They’re all in the public domain. That’s neat.]