The names bestowed on the Moon's dark features almost seem to give it a split personality. Most of the names on the right side (the eastern hemisphere) have calm connotations, while those on the left (the western hemisphere) have stormier connotations. Although they are named for seas or oceans, all of these features are vast plains of volcanic rock that formed about four billion years ago. [NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University]
Tour packages of the distant future might include stops at the Ocean of Storms, the Sea of Tranquility, and the Sea of Rains. Visitors won’t find a drop of water in any of them. But they will find artifacts of some of the most amazing expeditions in history: the first trips to the Moon.
Most visitors will want to visit Tranquility Base, where Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin became the first humans to touch down on our satellite world. The site is likely to be fenced off to preserve Armstrong’s famous “small step” on the lunar surface.
Five other Apollo landing sites, plus a dozen unmanned landers, are scattered across the lunar nearside. Some highlights include the landing site of Luna 9, a Soviet probe that was the first successful lunar lander, and the final parking spot of Lunokhod 1, the first robotic rover.
On the airless Moon, all of the sites should be well preserved. But they’re likely to be colorless. Ultraviolet radiation from the Sun will have bleached away the color of the American flags left by Apollo astronauts, as well as the flags painted on the landers themselves. Still, all of the sites will be well worth a visit — the first steps on another world.
And that world rises into good view by about 9 o’clock tonight. Another world on which we’ve left our mark is to its upper left: the planet Mars, which looks like a bright orange star. The two keep company as they soar high across the south during the night.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2011
For more skywatching tips, astronomy news, and much more, read StarDate magazine.