Carl Sagan, spokesperson for real stars, famously said the moon was boring. Were he still alive today, I bet he’d admit he was wrong.
Earlier this year, scientists found, as they put it, “direct evidence of surface exposed water ice in the lunar polar regions,” the first time such indications were so clear. Another group of researchers has found that water seems to be mixed into the lunar regolith — the “soil” found all across the moon. And yet another study, looking far back in time, hypothesizes that the early moon may have harbored liquid water on its surface billions of years ago: in other words, oceans, or in Darwin’s famous phrase, “warm little ponds” — the perfect breeding ground for microbial life.
While we partake in half-century nostalgia for the Apollo space-flight era — witness the Neil Armstrong biopic “First Man”— scientists, space agencies and entrepreneurs are plotting a do-over. Mars continues to elude us as an immediate destination for crewed missions — for now, it is too expensive and too dangerous get there. But with these recent lunar discoveries, the mantra “Moon to Mars” is beginning to make a lot more sense.
Although additional lunar robotic missions are needed to suss out details, the existence of surface water ice at the moon’s poles and bound-up water in the regolith at least allows us to imagine humans living and working there. Dust and radiation will present dangers to humans on the moon, but these problems will be more easily solvable on a body just three days away from Earth, rather than nearly a year away, like Mars. That’s why “NewSpace” entrepreneurs Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, as well as NASA, are targeting the moon.The odds are good that we will see humans orbiting it, and on its surface, in the 2020s.
And when humans do land on the moon again — to stay — they should add a search for signs of ancient life, including fossils to the mission profile. How amazing would it be to find the first evidence of extraterrestrial life right next door?
We don’t have to be rocket scientists to see that the moon isn’t boring. All we need are our eyes.
Saturday is International Observe the Moon Night. The moon will be partly in darkness, which creates sharper contrasts along the divide between light and shadow and thus a better view of many lunar features than during a full moon. (At a full moon, though, the naked eye can best make out what Galileo called the “dark and ancient spots,” the vast maria — Latin for “seas” — made up not of liquid water but hardened lava.)
There will be multiple free Observe the Moon events in Southern California, including one on the roof of the UCLA Mathematical Sciences Building (telescopes available starting at 7 p.m.). Viewing the moon through the eyepiece of a telescope can almost make you feel like you are orbiting our nearest neighbor in space. It offers earthlings our best opportunity to “see the nooks and crannies of another world,” in the words of Charles A. Wood and Maurice J.S. Collins, authors of “21st Century Atlas of the Moon,” a guide for amateur astronomers such as myself. They rightly call the moon “a topographically exuberant landscape.”
I look at that landscape as often as I can from a backyard in Tucson or from a cabin in the Utah mountains, where I spend part of each summer. I’ve learned to find my way across the moon’s ridges, craters, mountains and maria, and I’ve learned a good deal about its human and nonhuman history. I can wax poetic about how approaching sunlight transforms darkness into light-tipped, rugged hills that slowly blossom into the sharp slopes and etched rims of deep craters. I can spy lovely, frozen waves of rock lap against a mountain range and narrow channels that once gushed with thin lunar lava.
The moon is visually sublime and scientifically compelling, and now it has renewed capacity to instill wonder. It’s up there whether you live in the city or out in the country. With your own eyes, with binoculars, with a telescope, you can set sail for it. At a time when we are looking back at the 1960s race to the moon, we should also look ahead to what our scientific and even cultural future with the moon might be.
Start by looking up.