The Moon is flat!

By Phil Plait | September 12, 2011 8:33 am

When I got up this morning, I was greeted by a stunning view of the full Moon setting over the Rocky Mountains, glowing golden from the rays of the rising Sun. It was stunning and gorgeous.

But from a few hundred kilometers above, astronaut Soichi Noguchi had a slightly different view. Check. This. Out.

How bizarre is that? [Click to inflatenate.] In May 2010, Soichi was on the International Space Station, and was seeing the Moon through the thickest part of the Earth’s atmosphere. Under those circumstances the air acts like a lens, bending the light from the Moon, squashing it down — I’ve posted images like this before but I have never seen it squished to this degree. That’s amazing.

You can also see the change in color from the bottom to the top; it’s redder at the bottom. The more air you look through, the more junk (particles, smog, and so on) there is, and this stuff tends to scatter bluer light — think of it like bumpers in a pinball game bouncing the ball around, changing its path. In this case, the blue light from the Moon gets scattered away, and only the redder light gets through — that’s the same reason the setting Sun can look red. The closer to the Earth’s horizon you look, the more air you’re looking through, and the redder the Moon looks.

You can see that in the diagram here; the ISS is on the right, the Moon on the left, and the Earth with its atmosphere is in the middle. Light from the bottom of the Moon passes through more air as seen by the ISS, so the effects are greater.

In the picture you can also see ripples at the top of the Moon. That’s from different layers in the atmosphere having different temperatures, bending the Moon’s light by different amounts. When this phenomenon is strong enough, it can cause the famous Green Flash in the setting Sun.

So Soichi’s view was maybe a little bit better than mine. Not that I’m jealous! But man, how cool would it be to see something like that with your own eyes, just once?

Image credit: NASA. Tip o’ the lens cap to NASA Goddard on Twitter. Note: the way this was originally posted, I made it seem as if this picture was new, but it was actually taken in 2010. My apologies for that.


Related posts:

- Squishy Moonrise seen from space
- Moon over Afghanistan
- Pic of the Shuttle re-entry… from space!
- Flying through the aurora at 28,000 kph

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, Pretty pictures

Comments (14)

  1. Luna’s surface is non-Euclidean. Ssssh!

  2. Reminds me of things I’ve seen at the “Atmospheric Optics” site:

    http://www.atoptics.co.uk/atoptics/issmoon.htm

  3. RwFlynn

    Wow. That is the most extreme moon light warping photo I’ve seen yet. Great find, Phil!

  4. Thank you for sharing this great space photo, Phil!

    > When I got up this morning, I was greeted by a stunning view of the full Moon
    > setting over the Rocky Mountains, glowing golden from the rays of the rising
    > Sun. It was stunning and gorgeous.

    Here in China we’re observing our traditional Mid-Autumn Festival, which falls approximately on the Full Moon day of the 8th month in the traditional Chinese calendar. I’m glad you got a nice view of the festival moon :)

  5. Duderino

    Great – now we’ll have to travel around the whole damn thing to prove it’s round again!

  6. Dan I.

    I knew those damn “rounder earthers” were just a bunch of liars. If the Moon is flat, OBVIOUSLY the Earth must be too.

  7. Chris

    For those in want of a more scientifically accurate description of the scattering see
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rayleigh_Scattering
    To help stop comments asking how to billiard balls explain the energy/wavelength dependence of the scattering.

    As to why the sky isn’t purple, our eyes are more sensitive to blue, so it tends to win out over the purple.

  8. Pete Jackson

    I always knew that the Moon was just a hot air balloon. See what happens when they run out of fuel to keep it inflated!

  9. Bob

    This is what the moon looks like when you engage warp drive.

    RJB

  10. Ross

    You don’t have to go to ISS to see this effect. I once saw a full moon rise from my airplane during a night flight. It was pretty spectacular. It started as a blood-red glow on the the horizon, which at first I mistook for a large wildfire. Then the moon’s disk started to appear, in the same deep red color, and definitely squished, although not as pronounced as this photo. By the time the full disk had cleared the horizon, the distortion was gone and only a slight orange tint remained. If you ever get a chance to see it from this perspective, I highly recommend.

  11. Scott Hurst

    Yep. *That* is the vacation photo I want to return home with some day.

  12. But man, how cool would it be to see something like that with your own eyes, just once?

    *VERY!* ;-)

    Stunning if strange photo. :-)

    Looks like our Moon has suffered a particularly epic impact that has turned it into a molten distorted glob of rock! Like the Big Splash that formed it all over again. ;-)

  13. Are you sure the word isn’t “inflatulate”?

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