October 7 – Out Of The Dark

Today’s factismal: Features on the far side of the Moon are mostly named for Russian scientists and places.

If you look up at the Moon tonight, you’ll see a lot of dark areas. Known as “mares” (Latin for “seas” because that’s what early astronomers thought they were), these immense outflows of basaltic lava cover nearly 1/3 of the Moon’s face. And if you had asked the average planetologist of 1959 what the far side of the Moon would look like, they’d have said that it should look like the near side: white highlands surrounding darker basaltic mares. Surprisingly, the average planetologist would have been wrong – and we discovered that when the USSR sent the first probe to the far side of the Moon.

Luna 3, the first probe to photograph the far side of the Moon (Image courtesy NASA)

Luna 3, the first probe to photograph the far side of the Moon
(Image courtesy NASA)

Known as Luna 3, this was the USSR’s third probe to the Moon. Filled to the gills with state-of-the-art (for 1959) technology, Luna 3 included a complete photo lab that would take pictures using film, process the film, scan it using a crude version of a modern fax machine, and then transmit the image back to Earth. Due to the complexity of the process, only 40 images were taken but these gave us our first, shocking view of the lunar far side.

One of the first images of the far side of the Moon (Image courtesy NASA)

One of the first images of the far side of the Moon
(Image courtesy NASA)

Where we had expected to see mares, we saw highlands. Indeed, only two mares were found out of 500 features that could be identified on the images. And, as the discoverers of the new features, the Russians were given the opportunity to name them, along with the various craters and mountains that they saw. Being somewhat proud of their achievement, they naturally named the features after Russian scientists and Russian landmarks. So we got the Mare Moscoviense (“Sea of Moscow”) and the Mare Mechta (“Sea of Dreams” later changed to Mare Desiderii {“Sea of Dreams” in Latin instead of Russian}), along with craters called Perepelkin, Pavlov, Bolyai, and Tsiolkovsky. Though Americans fumed, we were stuck.

Of course, when later probes and manned flights went to the far side of the Moon, they were able to see many features that the first crude probes missed, and that allowed a few non-Russian names into the mix. And the process of identifying and naming lunar features continues today. If you’d like to give it a try and earn the right to name a feature yourself, then head over to Moon Mappers:
http://cosmoquest.org/projects/moon_mappers/?title=mappers/moon/

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