Introduction of the moon

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Moon is Earth's only natural satellite and the only astronomical body other than Earth ever visited by human beings. The moon is the brightest object in the night sky but gives off no light of its own. Instead, it reflects light from the sun. Like Earth and the rest of the solar system, the moon is about 4.6 billion years old.

The moon is much smaller than Earth. The moon's average radius (distance from its center to its surface) is 1,079.6 miles (1,737.4 kilometers), about 27 percent of the radius of Earth.

The moon is also much less massive than Earth. The moon has a mass (amount of matter) of 8.10 x 1019 tons (7.35 x 1019 metric tons). Its mass in metric tons would be written out as 735 followed by 17 zeroes. Earth is about 81 times that massive. The moon's density (mass divided by volume) is about 3.34 grams per cubic centimeter, roughly 60 percent of Earth's density.

Because the moon has less mass than Earth, the force due to gravity at the lunar surface is only about 1/6 of that on Earth. Thus, a person standing on the moon would feel as if his or her weight had decreased by 5/6. And if that person dropped a rock, the rock would fall to the surface much more slowly than the same rock would fall to Earth.

Despite the moon's relatively weak gravitational force, the moon is close enough to Earth to produce tides in Earth's waters. The average distance from the center of Earth to the center of the moon is 238,897 miles (384,467 kilometers). That distance is growing -- but extremely slowly. The moon is moving away from Earth at a speed of about 1 1/2 inches (3.8 centimeters) per year.

The temperature at the lunar equator ranges from extremely low to extremely high -- from about -280 degrees F (-173 degrees C) at night to +260 degrees F (+127 degrees C) in the daytime. In some deep craters near the moon's poles, the temperature is always near -400 degrees F (-240 degrees C).

The moon has no life of any kind. Compared with Earth, it has changed little over billions of years. On the moon, the sky is black -- even during the day -- and the stars are always visible.

A person on Earth looking at the moon with the unaided eye can see light and dark areas on the lunar surface. The light areas are rugged, cratered highlands known as terrae (TEHR ee). The word terrae is Latin for lands. The highlands are the original crust of the moon, shattered and fragmented by the impact of meteoroids, asteroids, and comets. Many craters in the terrae exceed 25 miles (40 kilometers) in diameter. The largest is the South Pole-Aitken Basin, which is 1,550 miles (2,500 kilometers) in diameter.

The dark areas on the moon are known as maria (MAHR ee uh). The word maria is Latin for seas; its singular is mare (MAHR ee). The term comes from the smoothness of the dark areas and their resemblance to bodies of water. The maria are cratered landscapes that were partly flooded by lava when volcanoes erupted. The lava then froze, forming rock. Since that time, meteoroid impacts have created craters in the maria.

The moon has no substantial atmosphere, but small amounts of certain gases are present above the lunar surface. People sometimes refer to those gases as the lunar atmosphere. This "atmosphere" can also be called an exosphere, defined as a tenuous (low-density) zone of particles surrounding an airless body. Mercury and some asteroids also have an exosphere.

In 1959, scientists began to explore the moon with robot spacecraft. In that year, the Soviet Union sent a spacecraft called Luna 3 around the side of the moon that faces away from Earth. Luna 3 took the first photographs of that side of the moon. The word luna is Latin for moon.

On July 20, 1969, the U.S. Apollo 11 lunar module landed on the moon in the first of six Apollo landings. Astronaut Neil A. Armstrong became the first human being to set foot on the moon.

In the 1990's, two U.S. robot space probes, Clementine and Lunar Prospector, detected evidence of frozen water at both of the moon's poles. The ice came from comets that hit the moon over the last 2 billion to 3 billion years. The ice apparently has lasted in areas that are always in the shadows of crater rims. Because the ice is in the shade, where the temperature is about -400 degrees F (-240 degrees C), it has not melted and evaporated.


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