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Moon and Saturn

June 18, 2016

Johannes Hevelius was one of the first astronomers of the telescope age to map the Moon. He spent four years charting the lunar surface, and published an atlas of his illustrations.

Hevelius made one other contribution to lunar studies. Like many other scientists, he thought the Moon was inhabited by intelligent creatures. So he coined a name for them: Selenites, from the name of the Greek Moon goddess.

The existence of Selenites was a topic of debate for a couple of centuries. Because they couldn’t see any evidence of an atmosphere, some astronomers thought the Moon was barren. But others thought the Moon must be inhabited. That included William Herschel, who discovered the planet Uranus.

In 1824, Franz von Paula Gruithuisen reported seeing cities, roads, and a star-shaped temple. A few years later, Joseph Johann von Littrow may have suggested a way to contact the Selenites: excavate giant geometric patterns, fill them with kerosene, and set them ablaze.

Not long after that, the idea of a lunar civilization lost favor. But the idea of some form of life persisted — especially microscopic life. In fact, when the first Apollo astronauts returned from the Moon, they had to spend weeks in isolation to make sure they hadn’t brought any lunar “bugs” back to Earth.

The bug-free Moon has a couple of bright companions tonight. The planet Saturn looks like a bright star close to the Moon, with the orange star Antares to their lower right.

Script by Damond Benningfield

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