Shadows on the Moon Make a Point

Fooled by shadow play into thinking lunar mountains were pointy pinnacles? Learn why we often see them that way.

Round makes jagged when the light is right

This sketch of the Caucasus Mountains perfectly captures the dramatic, pointed shadows cast by peaks and promontories in the low sunlight.
Frank McCabe

A few winters back, I noticed that a snowbank illuminated by a nearby yard light cast very long and pointy shadows. That seemed odd, as the bank consisted of rounded humps and knobs. But because the light struck it at a low angle, it greatly exaggerated the relief of each and every chunk, stretching bits of topography into long, sharp "teeth".

The effect was dramatic and immediately recalled nights at the telescope observing the spire-like shadows cast by lunar peaks and craters near the lunar terminator, the moving line separating daylight from darkness on the Moon.

Could the snowbank scenario be playing out on the Moon? At first blush, you wouldn't think so. With no atmosphere or running water to soften its hard edges, it's easy to imagine a jagged lunar landscape of pointy peaks just like what the shadows appear to show. Early depictions of the Moon's surface took their cues from telescopic observation, showing a rugged, forbidding landscape. As it turns out, this is an illusion.

Lunar mountains and snow chunks can both appear deceptively rugged

Sunlight grazing the top of a snowbank (right) throws the rounded knobs into stark relief on the street below. Every detail has been stretched and exaggerated by the sun’s low angle to create a shadowy "mountain range".
Bob King

The very fact that the moon is airless allows every bit of meteoric dust to zap the surface at tens of thousands of miles per hour. Over the 4.5 billion year lifetime of the moon, myriad micrometeorite impacts have acted like cosmic sandpaper, grinding down the once craggy peaks into the smooth hills and mountaintops so vividly seen in photographs returned from the Apollo missions.

An older conception of the lunar landscape

A 19th-century illustration of how the moon’s surface would look to a visitor from Earth. From the book The Moon by Nasmyth and Carpenter, published in 1874.

Other erosional forces also come into play. The 500-degree difference between daytime and nighttime lunar temperatures undoubtedly acts to weaken and fracture rock. If I can hear the trees popping on a subzero night here at home, I’ll bet rocks shudder during the long lunar night when the temperature bottoms out around –240° F (–151° C) and shudder again when the Sun rises two weeks later and the temperature soars to 250 °F (123 °C).

The truth of the Moon's mountains from orbit

Peaks of the Taurus-Littrow Mountains, with the command module in the foreground, loom beyond the window of the Apollo 17 lunar module. From a closer perspective, we get a better idea of the relative smoothness of lunar mountains. Have a pair of red-blue glasses? Click the image for an awesome 3-D view of this scene.
NASA

And what of boulders perched atop crater walls and dotting the valleys and slopes? Loosened by temperature change and occasional moonquakes, they tumble downhill, further subduing lunar contours over time.  No, our satellite turns out to be a softer-looking place than most had imagined, with mountains that more closely resemble the Appalachians than the Himalayas.

To walk among the marshmallow hills

On the ground. Apollo 17 astronaut Jack Schmitt makes his way among the Taurus mountains, which have been smoothed by billions of years of micrometeorite abrasion.
NASA

One of the great pioneers of space art, Chesley Bonestell, who painted breathtaking scenes of rockets landing on a rough and rocky Moon, grumbled when he saw the photos returned by the orbiting lunar probes and landers of the mid-1960s.

Plato proves the point

Pointed shadows stretch across the floor of the 68-mile-wide crater Plato. The best place to see extreme shadows is right along the Moon's terminator, the ever-shifting boundary between lunar day and night. This is where the Sun is near rising (between New and Full phases) or setting (from Full to New).
Damian Peach

Someone asked Bonestell what he thought about the images. "I thought how wrong I was!" he said. "My mountains were sharp, and they aren't on the Moon. They're round, battered by millions of years of meteorites."

You can watch this shady business play out in the coming week as the Moon waxes from a thick crescent to a three-quarter gibbous. All you need is a small telescope. Use 50x or higher and examine the strip of craters and hills along the lunar terminator lit by the rising Sun.

Lunar shadowlands in view this coming week

I've listed a few target areas where isolated peaks in mountain ranges, like the Alps and Caucasus, and along the rim of craters like Plato make for dramatic shadow-casting. Dates shown are approximate times when the terminator cuts through each region.
Virtual Moon Atlas - Patrick Chevalley, Christian Legrande

For evening viewing, the 6-9 day old Moon is best because we face the terminator squarely and shadows display the least amount of foreshortening. But other times work too — just avoid the Full Moon. Keep your wits about you as you enter a land of shadow and illusion!


The Sky & Telescope Field Map of the Moon: the only moon reference you'll need when you're at the telescope!

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Astronomy Blogs, Explore the Night with Bob King, Observing, Planets, Types of Objects to Observe
Bob King

About Bob King

Amateur astronomer since childhood and long-time member of the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO), Bob King also teaches community education astronomy and writes the blog Astro Bob. The universe invites us on an adventure every single night. All we need do is look up. Check out my forthcoming book "Night Sky with the Naked Eye" (on Amazon and BN) about all the great things you can see at night without any special equipment.

7 thoughts on “Shadows on the Moon Make a Point

  1. Roger-Keith

    Well, it would be good for the article to explain Why the shadows look so pointy. Is it the lunar roundness, or some other factor? It seems like the question is asked, but not answered.

    Best regards and clear skies to all –

    Roger

  2. Nzubenel

    Roger-Keith,

    For me, it is an issue of angular perspective, and can be illustrated thus: If I stand in the sun with the shadow of my head (DEFINITELEY not a sharp pinnacle – though some may argue otherwise!) projected upon a flat surface ~ 4 feet away, the shadow subtends an angle of ~ 7 degrees. The same shadow ~ 20 feet farther away subtends ~ 1 degree. The farther away the shadow goes (due to a lower sun angle), the smaller my head’s shadow gets. I we took an extremely high magnification look at the “pinnacle” shadows on the moon, they may not be as pointy as they appear at lower magnigications.

    Doug Z

  3. Nzubenel

    Actually, a better way to illustrate this, because the observer is not where my possibly pinnacle-shaped head is, but rather what the observer would see in a right-angle view of the Earth’s (or Moon’s) shadow cast during an eclipse. The umbral – or full – shadow is a gradually narrowing cone, because the object casting the shadow (Earth or Moon, in this case), is so much smaller than the light source of the sun. The cone would eventually comet to a point – even though the Earth and Moon are both round and have no pinnacles at such a scale. Anyone care to do the math and tell us how far from the sun the shadow “cones” cast by the Earth and Moon would be, respectively?

    DZ

  4. toyscientisttoyscientist

    Good article. its the perspective of the viewer seeing those shadows
    so it makes sense that the best lunar viewing is at the quarters, or ninety
    degrees. Its also when the apparent speed of terminator is greatest.

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