Sunday, November 15, 2009

the moon

Yay, Moon!
with Dr. Harry Spangler, NASA

Hello, this is Dr. Harry Spangler, and I'm here to tell you about the latest excitement coming out of NASA. From what they tell me, it's been a pretty big week. No, the glorious 'New Horizons' expedition has not yet reached the tiny frozen planetoid Pluto. That great day is still about six years off into the future. And in regards to my secondary assignment, no, NASA has not yet been able to locate a reliable new source for plutonium-238, although I'm told that our recent secret talks with North Korea are quite promising.

Perhaps you've recently heard the news about the Moon. This week we've discovered that although there is no beer in Heaven, there is in fact water on the moon. I'm sorry, the NASA PR department believes that I should capitalize the moon, but I'm afraid my heart just isn't in it.

Moon is a noun, people, not a proper noun, and I hesitate to further add to the nation's astrological illiteracy. The nomenclature goes back to a simpler time, when man could not yet imagine other enormous orbs circling other undiscovered planets. Planets? We didn't even know about planets. Oh sure, you say, we knew there was a Venus, we knew there was a Mars, but the fact is that we had no idea what they really were. The foolish Greeks called them 'wandering stars'. It wasn't until 700 BC when the Babylonians came up with the Venus Tablet of Ammisaduqa that humanity even began to get a clue that there were such things as planets. Forget about moons. By the time Galileo began to realize that the universe was absolutely full of moons, we were too set in our ways to name the one we already had. You can't just put a The in front of moon and make things right.

You know, on some planets, moons are worth talking about. Saturn, for example, has an impressive sixty-one moons. That's exactly sixty more than the planet Earth. And do you know what? Each and every one of those moons has a decent name. Some of them you know by heart - the majestic Titan, for example, which is a good 80% larger than our friendly orbiter. And of course there are our old friends Iapetus, Mimas, Hyperion, Enceladus, and my personal favorite, Calypso, which is shaped just like a potato. I'm no expert on Saturn, no, Pluto is my forte, but the point is that all of these worlds have proper names rather than common nouns.

But I digress. In case you happened to miss the news, I am pleased to inform you that this week NASA has discovered water on the moon! That's correct, you heard right, we slammed the Centaur rocket into the Cabeus crater and kicked up a whopping 26 gallons of water vapor. As NASA planetary scientist Peter Schultz remarked, 'Isn't that cool?'.

Well no, Peter, I'm afraid it's not. While 26 gallons of water is indeed enough to drown in, and pundits such as the wiseacres at Popular Mechanics consider this seventy-nine million dollar mission to be 'cheap in the spaceflight world', what with water going for only 3.29 million per gallon, one must give at least a passing thought to the form in which this water in fact exists.

Lets run some figures. When the Centaur met the Cabeus at 5600 miles per hour, it created a little crater of it's own, 65 feet in diameter and 13 feet in depth. Unimpressive by moon standards, but certainly sufficient for the burial of a few tractor trailers. How much moon matter would that be? You're correct, about 350 metric tons.

Now I'm doing this in my head but feel free to double check me with a calculator. 2204 times 16 times 350 gives us 12,342,400 ounces, out of which we get 3,328 ounces of water, or approximately 116 pounds of lunar surface for an 8 ounce serving, which is barely enough to wet a thirsty astronaut's whistle. I am singularly unimpressed, and that's before I even take up the question of reconstitution, which I plan to address in a future discussion, should NASA continue to divert my attention away from my beloved Pluto - which, by way of dramatic contrast, has a subsurface of liquid water that is well over 100 kilometers thick.

Right now I'm pretty mad at the moon. I suppose that most people are fond of that unnamed orb simply because they can see it, and I must admit that there is a certain primitive logic to that peculiar romanticization. In the picture above, you cannot see the ninth stone from the sun, but the full moon dominates the evening sky. It is lovely, is it not, at least until you realize that I have simply photoshopped in a picture of a cantaloupe as a symbol of my extreme displeasure at the entire nature of this conversation.


  1. Yes, moon is a noun, but it's also a verb ("Pardon me while I moon you") and an adjective ("Here's a moon pie in your eye").

  2. Pluto is not a planetoid; it is a planet. Only four percent of the IAU voted on this, and most are not planetary scientists. Their decision was immediately opposed in a formal petition by hundreds of professional astronomers led by Dr. Alan Stern, Principal Investigator of NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto. Stern and like-minded scientists favor a broader planet definition that includes any non-self-luminous spheroidal body in orbit around a star. The spherical part is important because objects become spherical when they attain a state known as hydrostatic equilibrium, meaning they are large enough for their own gravity to pull them into a round shape. This is a characteristic of planets and not of shapeless asteroids and Kuiper Belt Objects. Pluto meets this criterion and is therefore a planet.

  3. Dr. Spangler,

    Respectfully, I do believe there is beer in heaven. After all, even the BIBLE says to give beer to those who are perishing (on Earth). But in Heaven, none perish. Therefore, beer in Heaven! Yes!

    Oh, wait.

  4. Well, anyway, I still believe there is beer in Heaven. Call it faith, Dr. Spangler.

  5. I like this Spangler fella. excellent post Mark.

  6. I feel so much smarter, smugger.

    Maybe to avoid confusion we could call The Moon The Great Cantaloupe.

  7. tsisageya, I think that beer in heaven bit was just another of those hip polka references that Harry is always making.

    Hi Laurel, I love you and your Pluto blog, and would never pretend to know as much about that icy orb as you do. But no way do you know as much about Pluto as Dr Harry Spangler does.

  8. Mark, I'm happy you're enjoying my Pluto Blog. I can't say who "knows more" about Pluto because I am not familiar with Dr. Spangler's background and vice versa. He may well have used the word "planetoid" humorously. But it is worth noting that there are professionals on both sides of this debate who know as much as one another on the subject, yet still disagree. This could possibly be the situation with Dr. Spangler and me. I don't think you, he, or I have enough information to know who knows more about Pluto than who else. For all I know, you may be the most knowledgable of us all.

  9. rumor has it you cant mix water and cream cheese

    so the moon is not the next Food Network Star

  10. D-Cap, I hate to be a know it all, here, but everyone knows it is made of Swiss cheese.

  11. I'm getting a headache.

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