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natural satellites, Telescopes, albedo, lunar month, coal dust

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Moon, name given to the only natural satellite of Earth. The Moon is the second brightest object in Earth’s sky, after the Sun, and has accordingly been an object of wonder and speculation for people since earliest times. The natural satellites of the other planets in the solar system are also sometimes referred to as moons.

Telescopes have revealed a wealth of lunar detail since their invention in the 17th century, and spacecraft have contributed further knowledge since the 1950s. Earth’s Moon is now known to be a slightly egg-shaped ball composed mostly of rock and metal. It has no liquid water, virtually no atmosphere, and is lifeless. The Moon shines by reflecting the light of the Sun. Although the Moon appears bright to the eye, it reflects on average only 12 percent of the light that falls on it. This reflectivity, called albedo, of 0.12 is similar to that of coal dust.

The diameter of the Moon is about 3,480 km (about 2,160 mi), or about one-fourth that of Earth. The Moon’s mass is only 1.2 percent of Earth’s mass. The average density of the Moon is only three-fifths that of Earth, and gravity at the lunar surface is only one-sixth as strong as gravity at sea level on Earth. The Moon moves in an elliptical (oval-shaped) orbit around Earth at an average distance of 384,403 km (238,857 mi) and at an average speed of 3,700 km/h (2,300 mph). It completes one revolution in 27 days 7 hours 43 minutes. For the Moon to go from one phase to the next similar phase—as seen from Earth—requires 29 days 12 hours 44 minutes. This period is called a lunar month. The Moon rotates once on its axis in the same period of time that it circles Earth, accounting for the fact that virtually the same portion of the Moon (the “near side”) is always turned toward Earth.


Spudis, Paul D., B.A., Sc.M., Ph.D.

Principal Professor Staff, Johns Hopkins University, Applied Physics Laboratory. Author of "The Once and Future Moon"; "Geology of the Multi-Ring Basins: The Moon and Other Planets"; coauthor of "The Clementine Atlas of the Moon"; "Moonwake: The Lunar Frontier".

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