On Sept. 30, 1854, readers of the Illustrated London News were treated to an astonishing view of something they had seen all their lives but never in such detail, the moon. Assembled from photographs by John Hartnup, astronomer at the Liverpool Observatory, and by the Photographic Society of Liverpool, the double-page woodcut showed maria, craters, mountain ranges and debris rays.
Most of these geological features weren't well understood at the time. Speaking of a lecture by professor John Phillips, the paper reported, "… (T)he learned gentleman alluded to the much-mooted question as to there being traces of the action of water on the surface of the moon, as now presented to us. At one time, he believed that there was no trace of water to be seen; but he confessed that more recent observations, particularly those made with Lord Rosse's (Lord Rosse was William Parsons) telescope, shook his belief in that opinion."
Today's astronomers believe water is present on the moon as ice, particularly in permanently shadowed craters, and that it underlies some surface regions. But no evidence for it can be detected by terrestrial telescopes.
The newspaper quoted James Nasmyth's paper stating that the moon's craters were caused by volcanoes. "The volcanic matter is thrown up with such force that it is spread for a considerable distance around, forming a ring, with occasional concentric circles within it, the centre being a plane surface. The point from which such matter is thrown is generally surmounted by an apex. …" We now understand that the craters were formed by asteroid and comet strikes, including their rims, interior circles and central peaks. Lava from the melting of surface rock is present, forming vast maria and individual patches, but none is from volcanoes.
The moon diagram was printed upside-down to the way it's shown today (the south pole was at top) and none of the formations were labeled. But it was a surprisingly accurate representation. It may have been the first good, scientific astronomical view available to the public.
The moon was the object that began my lifelong fascination with astronomy. One afternoon when I was in grade school and living in Kiamensi Gardens, Delaware, my friend Billy Prost, his father Louis and I were lounging on a grassy field near our homes. Mr. Prost let us look at the moon through his binoculars. I had never seen anything remotely like this strange sphere with its jagged edges, plains and deep craters. Later, the moon was a principal player in the dramatic 1970 total solar eclipse, which compounded my interest. (A 1971 view of Saturn from the observatory on top of the University of Utah's South Physics Building cemented interest into obsession.)
Nowadays, I usually think of the moon as just a nuisance because its light interferes with deep-sky astronomy. It's a gigantic source of light pollution, a glare that brightens the heavens and washes out galaxies, nebulas, comets, asteroids and many of the stars. But it's such a close target, with such a varied topography — one that opens new vistas from night to night as it rolls through its eternal phases — that I should take more interest.
An amateur astronomer who hasn't lost interest in it is my friend Richard Garrard, a retired federal contracts manager who lives in Salt Lake City. "I was given my first telescope by my parents at the age of 10," said Garrard, a fellow member of the Utah Astronomy Club, on Facebook. "In my later years I have been able to renew my passion for astronomy and combine it with photography.
"The moon is a favored subject because it is changeable yet familiar; observable with basic to advanced equipment; and because it is a beautiful and still often mysterious presence in our skies. The moon as an astronomical subject is also accessible to observers in light-polluted areas like Salt Lake City.
"I recommend all new astronomers and astrophotographers begin with the moon," Garrard said.
Using his Celestron Edge 11-inch-diameter telescope and both an astronomy CCD camera and a Cannon camera, he has taken a brilliant series of photos of the moon. Lately, he has expanded his photographic reach to include planets as well as deep-space objects like nebulas, galaxies and star clusters.
His photo of the first-quarter moon literally is far better than I have been able to see it through a telescope.
In the view of the Apollo 11 landing location, Garrard has labeled craters that were named for that adventure's astronauts, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins. Studying this prompts one to reflect on what a dangerous and alien place the moon is and what brave people the astronauts and cosmonauts are.
His view of the "Sea of Rains," Mare Imbrium, shows a gigantic impact basin that is flooded with solidified lava of the type called basalt, rather than water. The basin is one of the biggest craters in the solar system, and is believed to have resulted from the impact of a proto-planet 150 miles in diameter, according to a 2016 article by Deborah Byrd of earthsky.org. She quoted a research paper by Brown University astronomer Peter Schultz that grooves around the basin were cut by material blasting out from the impact.
Indeed, the moon is worth much more than another look; it's worth a lot more observing and photography. But now I'm packing to head for the desert and, I hope, enjoy a moonless night of happy astrophotography!