Moon tour

Our des­ti­na­tion this month is the star of one of the most fa­mous sci-fi films ever made…

All About Space - - Contents -

Des­ti­na­tion Harpalus this month as you look upon a fea­ture that's also a film star

This crater was the un­cred­ited star of a film that was re­leased 18 years be­fore 2001: A Space Odyssey and stunned au­di­ences with its re­al­is­tic de­pic­tion of space ex­plo­ration – Des­ti­na­tion Moon.

Of course, many lu­nar fea­tures and land­marks have been fea­tured in sci­ence-fic­tion films and TV shows over the years. Some of the very first sci­ence-fic­tion films were silent movies that showed peo­ple vis­it­ing the Moon in glo­ri­fied ar­tillery shells fired from huge can­nons, to meet ei­ther bizarrelook­ing aliens or danc­ing girls.

In the afore­men­tioned clas­sic 2001, astronauts ex­ca­vated an enig­matic alien mono­lith from deep be­neath the crater Clav­ius. In Star Trek: First Con­tact the USS En­ter­prise’s time­trav­el­ling First Of­fi­cer Riker waxes lyri­cal to warp drive in­ven­tor Ze­fram Cochrane about gaz­ing up at the ter­raformed Moon in his cen­tury and see­ing the lights of cities shin­ing there, and Lake Armstrong too. The Moon has even been vis­ited by Spongebob Squarepants!

But in 1950 the film Des­ti­na­tion Moon was the first to at­tempt to show the Moon, and the view from it, re­al­is­ti­cally, by fea­tur­ing the stun­ning art­work and mod­els of artist Ch­es­ley Bon­estell. Many con­sider Bon­estell to be the orig­i­nal – and still the best – ‘space artist’. Al­though his lu­nar land­scapes were much more dra­matic and jagged than the ones the Apollo astronauts would gaze out on and ex­plore decades later, they were still far more re­al­is­tic than any­thing painted or shown on screen be­fore.

When Des­ti­na­tion Moon came out, 19 years be­fore Apollo landed on the Moon for real, it took au­di­ences on a thrilling mis­sion to a real crater you can find for your­self on the Moon this month: Harpalus.

Sit­ting al­most in the cen­tre of Mare Frig­oris or ‘The Sea of Cold’, a long, nar­row stain just above the beau­ti­ful cres­cent-shaped Si­nus Iridum in the far northerly reaches of the Moon, Harpalus is a phys­i­cally small crater. Just 40 kilo­me­tres (25 miles) across and 3 kilo­me­tres (1.8 miles) deep, it is less than a third as wide as Coper­ni­cus and just one eighth the size of Clav­ius. Vis­ually it is an un­re­mark­able fea­ture, not helped by the fact that its close prox­im­ity to the lu­nar north pole means that our view of it from here on Earth is greatly fore­short­ened, so it usu­ally looks like more of an oval than a cir­cu­lar fea­ture. How­ever, some­times the Moon’s li­bra­tion – the axial wob­ble it has which causes it to oc­ca­sion­ally but reg­u­larly tilt fea­tures around its limb to­wards us and then away from us again, mean­ing we can some­times see a lit­tle way ‘around the edge’ of the Moon – some­times causes Harpalus to be tipped to­wards us, al­low­ing us a much bet­ter view. This month Harpalus will be well placed for ob­ser­va­tion.

Pho­tos taken from di­rectly above by or­bit­ing probes show Harpalus is roughly cir­cu­lar, with shal­low, ter­raced walls, a trio of low moun­tains ris­ing up from its hum­mocky floor and a sys­tem of rays spread­ing away from it. In this way it looks rather like a smaller ver­sion of the ‘celebrity’ crater Coper­ni­cus. If you look at Harpalus through a small te­le­scope around 30 and 31 Au­gust, when it is at its best, you will be able to see right into it and will be able to make out de­tails on its walls and floor, in­clud­ing a small crater there.

So when can you see this crater at its best this month?

At the start of this is­sue’s ob­serv­ing pe­riod Harpalus can­not be seen; it is fully hid­den in shadow. You’ll have to wait un­til the evening of 22 Au­gust to see it emerg­ing from the dark­ness, as the ter­mi­na­tor passes over it and al­lows the Sun to shine on its raised rim again.

By the evening of 23 Au­gust the crater will be in full sun­light and very easy to see in a small te­le­scope. It should even be vis­i­ble – just – through a good pair of binoc­u­lars.

The crater will re­main fully il­lu­mi­nated un­til 4 Septem­ber, when the ter­mi­na­tor will re­turn and be­gin to sweep back over it again, cut­ting off the sun­light. By the evening of 5 Septem­ber Harpalus will be out of our view once more.

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