I used to find the Moon just plain irritating. You might think that’s a little odd once you learn that I’m a public observing guide at Kitt Peak National Observatory. It was odd, but fortunately, I’ve come around. I now heartily appreciate the Moon. If you’d like to know how I came to love the Moon and why I ever disliked it, keep reading.
The Moon Ruins Dark Skies
When Kitt Peak gets dark, it gets REALLY dark. Our higher elevation helps reduce atmospheric distortion, making for impressively crisp views of the night sky. In our evening guided public observing programs, we show visitors the most dazzling sights of the night sky. The Moon is one of the most dazzling sights, to be sure—we wouldn’t send you home without observing the Moon! The trouble with the Moon, is it is so, so very bright. It’s bright enough to steal the show—basically demanding to be the only object anyone really enjoy when it’s any bigger than a crescent. Alongside a bright Moon, star clusters, nebulas, and galaxies look dull and washed out at best. In some cases, they completely fade away.
Bright moon nights can feel like a waste. Our program participants don’t necessarily know what they are missing when the Moon is bright, but I do. Imagine having to show a washed out Orion Nebula when I know what it looks like at its best—when there’s no Moon up, and skies are stunningly dark. Visitors come from all over to see the skies of Kitt Peak. I want them to experience our skies at their best!
Don’t Fight the Moon, Focus on It!
There isn’t much anyone can do about a bright Moon, but there is one thing. Instead of fighting it, you can just give in. The Moon wants you to focus on the Moon, and now, that’s what I do. Kitt Peak now offers a program focused on observing the Moon, called Night of the Marvelous Moon. Creating this program, I learned the Moon is bursting with features of its own! They aren’t nebulas or distant galaxies, but they are fascinating in their own right.
You might be surprised by how varied craters can be. Some are big, some are small, some are bright, some are dark, some are shallow, some are deep, and I could go on! And if you think craters are all there is to see on the Moon, you’d be very wrong! We can see mountains on the Moon formed by volcanism billions of years ago, and mountains that were formed through wholly different geological processes than any mountains of Earth. We can see valleys and channels, ridges and plains, and variation in brightness of terrain as well. The Moon takes up only a tiny morsel of sky, however, it turns out to be so full of features, it’s like another whole sky’s worth of objects, rolled up into one tiny package. That’s the secret to the Moon: it isn’t just one object. You could fill a whole night with observing just the Moon.
Join us for Night of the Marvelous Moon!
I’d love for you to join me or one of my fellow guides for a Night of the Marvelous Moon program. We begin the program by watching the sunset, and learning about lunar geology. After that, we observe the Moon at up to about 400 power magnification. Programs run for about a week each month, leading up to full moon. You can find available dates at visitkittpeak.org. Moreover, if you’ve been to a Night of the Marvelous Moon program—it’s worth repeating! That is because, if you attend at a different phase of the Moon, you will see different features of the Moon. Different features are observed every night.
— Carmen Austin, Kitt Peak Visitor Center Guide