Great tools to learn about the moon

The free Virtual Moon Atlas for Mac or Windows is available online. See below for more information. Credit: Patrick Chevalley and Christian Legrand

Members of our Arrowhead Astronomical Society and I had a grand time last night sharing views of the moon and Jupiter through our telescopes with passers-by in Duluth’s Canal Park. Seeing Uranus next to Jupiter was a real bonus. So many people thrilled to see Jupiter’s four brightest moons. Surely Galileo must have felt the same that fall night in 1609 when he turned his tiny telescope toward the planet and became the first person ever to see them. Each one of us gets to be our own “Galileo” when we step up to the eyepiece and gaze at those four bright points of light for the first time.

After pointing out and describing lunar craters to people, it encouraged me to look into what’s available for lunar atlases both online and in book form. Many of us own telescopes, and we all know how to point them at the moon, but once we’re there, there’s so much to see it can be confusing. Lunar atlases features a series of photos taken at different lunar phases annotated with the names of craters, valleys and mountain ranges. Atlases not only help us find our way, they encourage us to explore further, moving from the big and obvious to the lesser known over time. Many include descriptive information explaining nature of the features we’re seeing.

While there are lots of moon atlases out there – many out of print by the way, and available only in the used market – here are a couple you might consider looking into. I selected these based on quality, ease of use and budget. One of the best, Atlas of the Moon by Antonin Rukl, is sadly out of print, though occasional used copies show up at premium prices.

* Discover the Moon by Jean Lacroux and Christian LeGrande. Highlights over 400 features in pictures showing the moon as it appears both through reflecting telescopes, which invert images, and refracting/compound telescopes using a star diagonal. The basics of lunar features are described. Price about $21

* Sky & Telescope’s Field Map of the Moon by Rukl. A laminated fold-out map based on the superb drawings of Antonin Rukl. Very handy at the telescope with hundreds of features identified. Price about $8

* The Modern Moon: A Personal View by Charles Wood. Not an atlas but a well-written, up-to-date book that describes the geology of lunar features. Well illustrated and highly recommended! Perfect companion to an atlas.

When it comes to online tools, one of the easiest, most enjoyable atlases to use is the Full Moon Atlas. When you click on the link, you’re presented with a picture of the moon divided into 41 rectangular sectors. Select any sector and you get a close up view of it. As you move your cursor over a particular feature, a little flag pops up with its name and diameter. While basic, it’s a good place to start to get familiar with many of the moon’s highlights.

For a more detailed atlas that also features lots of information about craters, mountains and the like, you can download the free Virtual Moon Atlas for Windows or Mac created by Patrick Chevalley and Christian Legrand. This wonderful tool lets you select any date and time for moon viewing, explore the lunar librations and zoom into craters and features on both the visible and lunar farside.

Moon Globe is a free app for iPhones

Don’t feel like going outside in the cold? You can explore a wealth moon pictures taken by robotic spacecraft, moon landers and Apollo astronauts by clicking over to the Lunar and Planetary Institute’s Lunar Images and Maps site. This page is the mother lode of lunar imagery. Finally, for those who want an atlas at their beck and call, day or night, Apple iTunes offers the very nice – and free – Moon Globe, which features a 3-D globe you can manipulate with finger movements to spin around and zoom in anywhere you’d like. There’s also a similar app called Moon Atlas for $5.99.

With all these tools at your disposal, it’s easy to become savvy about the moon.

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