The Moon: A Biography

"You can know all the facts about the Moon, all its measurements, the chemical composition of its rocks and the ages of its surface features, but if you just know the facts you will never know the real Moon."


It may surprise you to know that this statement comes from a scientist - Dr David Whitehouse, the BBC News Online science editor. It is taken from his book The Moon: A Biography, which was also the title of the talk he gave for our October 2003 meeting.

His fascination with the Moon began early, as a junior member of Birmingham Astronomical Society and has continued throughout his professional and adult life. Even when working at Jodrell Bank Radio Telescope he would "sneak away across the fields for a few moments with a pair of binoculars to look at the Moon".

The earliest evidence for our fascination with the Moon goes back to the last Ice Age, nearly 17,000 years ago. Paintings of animals in Lascaux Cave in France are accompanied by patterns of dots. One row of 29 dots depicts the 29-day cycle of the Earth's satellite and the tiny pattern of the Pleiades star cluster can also be seen hanging above the shoulder of a bull near the entrance to the main passageway.

The first black and white photograph of the Moon's surface was transmitted to Earth by the American probe Ranger 7 on 31 July 1964. Before it crash-landed into the Moon it sent back over 4,000 high quality photos.

Two years later in early February the Russians launched Luna 9, an unmanned probe that landed on the Moon and then transmitted the first television pictures of the surface around the area known as the Ocean of Storms. In fact the Russian space program holds quite a number of firsts regarding the Moon: first probe to impact the Moon, first flyby and image of the lunar farside, first soft landing, first lunar orbiter, and the first circumlunar probe to return to Earth. However, the US did win the race to the Moon in 1969 and after a nail-biting descent to the lunar surface, Neil Armstrong spoke the infamous phrase "Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed."

A human presence on the Moon ended with Apollo 17 back in December of 1972 but the unmanned exploration of our only satellite carries on. The ESA spacecraft, SMART-1, has already been in Earth orbit for a month driven by a new type of propulsion known as an ion-drive. When it reaches the Moon it will map its surface and geology and try to find answers to some of the Moon's remaining secrets.