Number 7: The Moon

Hey, Sky Fans! Merry Christmas and happy Hanukkah to you and your families. Thanks for taking some time out of your day to stop by.

After taking some time off yesterday to let my habit of pushing the wrong button catch up with my grand writing plans, we’re back with our solar system’s seventh best moon of 2016.

Number 7: The Moon

The number 7 moon on our list is the fifth biggest in the solar system, the only naked-eye moon, and the biggest moon in the solar system relative to the planet it orbits. It’s the one, the only, The Moon!

The Moon only made it to number 7? Yeah, I’m as surprised as you are. When I was trying to come up with the listand if you think I’ve got the whole thing made already, you don’t know me very wellI wasn’t sure where to put the Moon. It’s hard to imagine being a fan of astronomy, or read this or any other astronomy writing, without loving our Moon. It’s easy to take the Moon for granted, but there are so many reasons to love it that it seems silly to try to list them.

I didn’t want the list be too geocentric, but at the same time I sometimes wonder if the Moon’s even that remarkable a place once you get past how lucky we are to have it in our skies. We’re lucky we are to be at a point in the history of the world when the Moon is right where it is, close enough to feel like it’s just barely past arm’s length. If we’d gotten here a little bit later, astronomically speaking, it’ll have spiraled off into space. We’re here  while it can still give us the occasional solar eclipse. Every year it moves about an inch and a half farther away. When our insect overlords take over, they might not be so fortunate.

Unlike some other places, the Moon has no significant atmosphere, and though there’s water, there’s no gigantic ocean. Nope. It has none of the really sexy things we tend to talk about when we talk about the solar system. It does have one thing going for it, though.

Forty-eight years ago today, December 25, 1968, Bill Anders, Jim Lovell, and Commander Frank Borman finished the last of their ten orbits around the Moon, flipped on the turn signal aboard Apollo 8, merged into traffic and headed for home.

On that mission they became the first people ever to see the far side of the Moon, the first ever to see the Earth rise into the sky (and take the best and most important photograph ever taken, below). If that giant SPS engine hadn’t started up right when they asked it to, it would have been terrible. Raw ingenuity, teamwork, and intelligence, and the right stuff made it happen. That mission set a path that was, almost unbelievably, followed eight more times. Lovell, incidentally, was fortunate enough to be one of three astronauts to fly to the Moon twice. Know who the other two are?

Earthrise, by the crew of Apollo 8 (from NASA)
Earthrise, by the crew of Apollo 8 (from NASA)

Among astronomical holidays, today’s a big one. Every time I look up and see a waxing crescent settling into the sweltering orange glow of a July evening, a giant flashlight in the sky overnight, or a third quarter in the cold, faded blue of a February afternoon, I stop for a minute to stare and wonder. I wonder what it was like to have been part of the Apollo program, to have programmed the guidance system, to have sewn the air-tight seams on the spacesuits, to have been one of those astronauts. I wonder how it felt to have been just another person going about life when there were people there. Even though that anniversary, just like the Moon itself keeps moving farther away, and we haven’t been back since 1972, I wonder. I wonder if we can do that, what else we can do, and I’m filled right away with a huge and profound feeling of awe, humility, and hope.

Here’s to number 7 on our list, The Moon!

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