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The ultimate guide to observing the moon

surface of moon
(Image credit: NASA Goddard)

The moon is by far the most luminous object in the night sky. Reaching a maximum brightness of -12.92 magnitude, it’s hard to miss as it boldly takes center stage and washes out any celestial object that is unable to challenge its brightness.

Its unmistakable entrance is marked by lighting up the sky as a curved sliver of light—the waxing crescent—before revealing its entire face as the full moon. Despite its beauty, this chunk of rock that has accompanied our planet since its formation is something that many take for granted. 

This is because it always seems to be there. We see it on a nightly basis and, with the naked eye, we are able to pick out the craters, volcanoes, ridges, and basins that plague its terrain. We suspect that we’ve seen all that our moon has to offer. But have we?

If you’ve never pointed a pair of binoculars or a telescope at our satellite, then you’ll be surprised to learn that the moon is an astronomical object worthy of observing in its own right. What’s even better is that because it is the closest celestial body to us it is very easy to observe, even with the naked eye, and especially when some of its more obvious features are lit up by the sun.

To see the finer details of its battered surface, though, you’ll need a pair of binoculars or a telescope; the greater your instrument’s aperture, the better. The added beauty is that whatever phase of the moon is being revealed to Earth, it still has several features on show for you to find and observe.

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However, there is something that our moon likes to keep relatively hidden from us—its far side; the face we never see. This is because our rocky companion spins on its axis at around the same time that it takes to orbit the Earth. 

However, it is not always entirely hidden, sometimes the interaction between the moon and Earth causes our satellite to rock backwards and forwards in a motion known as libration, revealing about 9% more of its surface, and showing different halves at different times. Because of the angle of the Earth to the moon, you’d be hard-pressed to spot anything interesting on the moon’s far side, but it is certainly worth looking out for. 

Related: Why is the far side of the moon so weird? Scientists may have solved a lunar mystery

Setting sail on the lunar seas 

They are the first thing you are likely to spot when you gaze upon the moon’s surface, making that pattern that we often refer to as the Man or Rabbit in the moon; the moon’s seas or, as astronomers call them, lunar maria.

But unlike our planet, and what early stargazers thought, these are not vast bodies of water that we’re used to, these are the plains of our companion’s very active past; the mark of volcanic eruptions between some 3 and 3.5 billion years ago that have spewed out lava, rapidly cooling to form stretches of grey basaltic rock. 

These seas are also fairly dark and less reflective of the sun’s light than the light grey areas that surround them—this is all down to the rich amounts of iron found in these lunar seas.

But it’s not all great seas, if you look carefully enough, you can also spot some of the smaller lakes, marshes, and bays that litter the lunar surface. Most of these features can be seen when the moon is full or close to full and with the naked eye. However, if you find that you are struggling, then a good pair of binoculars will help you.

The mountainous moon 

The lunar surface would not be complete without its ridges, valleys, and faults. It also would not be the rocky world we have come to know without the majestic mountains that rise out of its dry, dusty surface and team up to form gigantic mountain ranges stretching out anywhere from 31 to 491 miles (50 to 790 kilometers) in diameter. Despite their monstrous sizes, you will need a telescope to get the full benefit of spotting these incredible landmarks. These are best viewed while the moon is in a transitional phase with its terminator visible. 

Counting craters 

Craters, craters, everywhere! Our moon shows signs of being incredibly scarred with the thousands of pock marks and dents in its rocky surface — most of which have been formed by chunks of space rock smashing into it. 

We know the moon to be a barren world — devoid of any water, atmosphere or tectonic plates. What this means is that there are no elements to wear these craters down and they're there to stay with some dating over two billion years old. What's more is that they come in a whole variety of brightnesses, sizes and depths; with some boasting raised rims and central peaks.

Some of the craters are so big that we can even see them from Earth with binoculars or using a telescope. And, as the moon shifts through its phases, you can watch the variation in lighting alter their features, making them all the more exciting to watch.

Swipe through our gallery below to see our top eight craters and their coordinates to help you locate them on the lunar surface.

Image 1 of 8

plato crater on the moon

Plato crater imaged by NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (Image credit: Quickmap, LROC, NASA)

Plato

Coordinates: 51.6˚N 9.3˚W

Diameter: 68 miles (109 km)

Depth: 0.6 miles (1 km)

Image 2 of 8

Copernicus crater on moon

Copernicus crater imaged by NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (Image credit: LROC Quickmap, NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University)

Copernicus

Coordinates: 9.7˚N 20.0˚W

Diameter:  58 miles (93 km)

Depth: 2.4 miles (3.8 km)

Image 3 of 8

Manilius crater on surface Moon

Manilius crater imaged by NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (Image credit: LROC Quickmap, NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University)

Manilius

Coordinates: 14.5˚N 9.1˚E

Diameter: 24 miles (39 km)

Depth: 2 miles (3.1 km) 

Image 4 of 8

Stevinus crater moon

Stevinus crater imaged by NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (Image credit: LROC Quickmap, NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University)

Stevinus

Coordinates: 32.5˚S 54.2˚E

Diameter: 47 miles (75 km)

Depth: 1.9 miles (3 km)

Image 5 of 8

Tycho crater on the moon

Tycho crater imaged by NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (Image credit: LROC Quickmap, NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University)

Tycho

Coordinates: 43.31˚S 11.36˚W

Diameter: 54 miles (86 km)

Depth: 3 miles (4.8 km)

Image 6 of 8

Aristarchus crater on the moon

Aristarchus imaged by NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (Image credit: LROC Quickmap, NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University)

Aristarchus

Coordinates: 23.7˚N 47.4˚W

Diameter: 25 miles (40 km) 

Depth: 2.3miles (3.7 km) 

Image 7 of 8

Kepler crater on the moon

Kepler imaged by NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (Image credit: LROC Quickmap, NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University)

Kepler

Coordinates: 8.1˚N 38.0˚W

Diameter: 20 miles (32 km) 

Depth: 1.6 miles (2.6 km) 

Image 8 of 8

Langrenus crater on the moon

Langrenus crater imaged by NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (Image credit: LROC Quickmap, NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University)

Langrenus

Coordinates: 8.9˚S 60.9˚E 

Diameter: 82 miles (132 km) 

Depth: 1.7 miles (2.7 km)

What causes the phases of the moon?

As the moon orbits our planet every 27.3 days, the trick of the sunlight gives us a run of phases roughly every 30 days.

(Image credit: NASA/All About Space Magazine)

In Earth’s shadow: Lunar eclipses 

Total lunar eclipse in 2018 captured from ESA's European Space Astronomy Centre in Spain.  (Image credit: ESA/CESAR–M.Castillo)

When the moon turns crimson, we know that our lunar companion has passed into Earth’s shadow—the umbra—where no direct sunlight, other than that which filters through our planet’s atmosphere, can reach its surface. 

When this happens, we are experiencing a lunar eclipse. Unlike solar eclipses, the beauty of the lunar version is that, provided you’re on the night side of Earth, you’ll get to see this event wherever you are. 

As an added bonus, you don’t need protective eyewear, or even optical aids, to watch a lunar eclipse, whether it’s a total or partial one. We will be treated to two lunar eclipses in 2014.

Shining in Earth’s light 

The waxing gibbous moon seen from the International Space Station by ESA astronaut Tim Peake.  (Image credit: ESA/NASA)

When the moon begins its phases for the month as a waxing crescent before it transitions into its first quarter, you might have noticed that you can just about make out the rest of the lunar surface—and some of the seas that dominate its rocky face—even though it is still in shadow. 

The brightest segment of the moon visible to us is basking in the scorching hot rays of the sun, so what is causing the rest of the moon to glow when it is not due to reveal itself to us yet?

Light rays get wherever they can and what’s happening is that the sunlight that’s reflected from Earth is being transferred onto the moon’s face. This is called Earthshine, and it is usually most readily observable during the waxing and waning crescent phases.

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