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See how visualizations of the moon have changed over time

From Plato to Galileo to Chang’e, views of our lunar neighbor keep evolving

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6:00am, July 10, 2019
Astronomicum Caesareum moon image

LUNAR LOOKS  This section of a hand-colored woodcut from 1540 shows how astronomers began to stylize the moon by drawing it a face.

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Look up at the moon and you’ll see roughly the same patterns of light and shadow that Plato saw about 2,500 years ago. But humankind’s understanding of Earth’s nearest neighbor has changed considerably since then, and so have the ways that scientists and others have visualized the moon.

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, here are a collection of images that give a sense of how the moon has been depicted over time — from hand-drawn illustrations and maps, to early photographs, to highly detailed satellite images made possible by spacecraft such as NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.

The images, compiled with help from Marcy Bidney, curator of the American Geographical Society Library at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, show how developments in technology such as the telescope and camera drove ever more detailed views of Earth’s closest celestial companion.

1. Atlas Coelestis, Johann Gabriel Doppelmayr, 1742

Ancient Greek philosophers like Plato thought the moon and other celestial bodies revolved around a fixed Earth. This 1742 diagram by German scientist Johann Gabriel Doppelmayr depicts that idea. The thinkers saw the moon as perfect and struggled to explain its dark marks. In 1935, one of the moon’s most conspicuous craters was named after Plato.

2. Astronomicum Caesareum, Michael Ostendorfer, 1540

This hand-colored woodcut by German painter Michael Ostendorfer appears in Astronomicum Caesareum, a vast collection of astronomical knowledge compiled by the German author Petrus Apianus and published in 1540. The image is an example of how astronomers in this early Renaissance period began to stylize the moon by giving it a face, Bidney says.

The book also contains more than 20 exquisitely detailed moving paper instruments, or volvelles, that helped predict lunar eclipses, calculate the position of the stars and more.

3. De Mundo, William Gilbert, ca. 1600

Created around 1600, this sketch is the oldest known lunar map, and was drawn using the naked eye. William Gilbert, physician to Queen Elizabeth I, imagined that the bright spots were seas and the dark spots land, and gave some features names, such as Regio Magna Orientalis, which translates as “Large Eastern Region” and roughly coincides with the vast lava plain known today as Mare Imbrium.

4. Sidereus Nuncius, Galileo, 1610

The telescope made it far easier to see the moon’s topography. By Galileo, these 1610 lunar maps are some of the first published to rely on telescope views. His work supported the Copernican idea that the moon, Earth and other planets revolved around the sun.

Although Galileo’s moon drawings were not the first to rely on telescope observations — English astronomer Thomas Harriot created the first sketch in 1609 — Galileo’s were the first published. These images appeared in his astronomical treatise Sidereus Nuncius.

5. Selenographia,  Johannes Hevelius, 1647

In 1647, Polish astronomer Johannes Hevelius, published the first lunar atlas, Selenographia. The book contains more than 40 detailed drawings and engravings, including this one, that show the moon in all its phases. Hevelius also included a glossary of 275 named surface features.

To create his images, Hevelius, a wealthy brewer, constructed a rooftop observatory in Gdańsk and fitted it with a homemade telescope that magnified the moon 40 times. Hevelius is credited with founding the field of selenography, the study of the moon’s surface and physical features. 

6. First known lunar photo, John William Draper, 1840

Photography opened a new way to capture the moon. Taken around 1840 by British-born chemist and physician John William Draper, this daguerreotype is the first known lunar photo. Spots are from mold and water damage.

7. "Moon over Hastings", Henry Draper, 1863

Photos of the moon quickly improved. John William Draper’s son Henry, a physician like his father, also developed a passion for photographing the night sky. He shot this detailed image from his Hastings-on-Hudson observatory in New York in 1863, and went on to become a pioneer in astrophotography.

8. Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, NASA, 2018 

This 2018 image, from NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, shows the moon’s familiar face in incredible detail. Now we know its marks are evidence of a violent past and include mountain ranges, deep craters and giant basins filled with hardened lava.

9. Lunar farside, Chang’e-4, 2019 

Countless images now exist of the moon’s illuminated face, but only relatively recently have astronomers managed to capture shots of the moon’s farside, using satellites. Then in February, China’s Chang’e-4 lander and rover became the first spacecraft to land there. This is the first image captured by the probe.   

Citations

University of Wisconsin Milwaukee. American Geographical Society Library.

Further Reading

L. Grossman. Meteor showers dig up water on the moon. Science News. Vol. 195, May 11, 2019, p. 8.

L. Grossman. China just landed the first spacecraft on the moon’s farside. Science News. Vol. 195, February 2, 2019, p. 5.

L. Grossman. This spinning moon shows where debris from giant impacts fell. Science News. Vol. 193, April 14, 2018, p. 32.

T. Sumner. Competing ideas abound for how Earth got its moon. Science News. Vol. 191, April 15, 2017, p. 18.

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