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Supermoons aren’t that special – but the Moon absolutely is

Dear The Internet,

Want to know a secret about supermoons? They’re not that rare, not that special, and not obviously different to normal moons unless you’re really familiar with what they look like normally.

But here’s a secret about the Moon: it’s FREAKIN’ AWESOME and any excuse to make people go outside and look at it is a good one.

"There's a moon in the sky / It's called the Moon". You nailed it, B-52s.
“There’s a moon in the sky / It’s called the Moon”. You nailed it, the B-52s.

The Moon is unique because it’s made out of a bit of Earth that was blasted off and congealed in orbit. No other moon in our solar system appears to have been created that way.

Generally moons are made of bits of detritus from the formation of the solar system that clumped into vaguely spherical bodies around bigger planets (which is how most of them were probably formed), or captured asteroids (Mars’ tiny moons Phobos and Deimos, which will eventually crash to the surface) or cometary bodies that got trapped by gravity (everything orbiting around Pluto, and Neptune’s moon Triton orbits in the opposite direction to  the planet’s many other moons because it was an interloper that passed too close, which is incredibly weird and great).

Our Moon was created in a catastrophic collision between the newly-formed Earth and (we now think) a small protoplanet that was moving very, very fast about four and half billion years ago while the solar system was still forming.

What’s even more awesome is that it’s basically the reason you exist.

Earth has nice predictable seasons because the Moon’s gravity stops Earth wobbling wildly on its axis the way that, say, Mars does, meaning that life had a chance to get going without the entire place becoming encased in ice as a hemisphere turned away from the sun or burned to a crisp from millennia of direct sunlight.

That might be the reason there doesn’t seem to be life teeming all over the universe: maybe those first replicating chemical processes develop easily enough, but most planets don’t have stable temperatures that would let complex molecules develop long enough to establish that early foothold for life. After all, life started on Earth about 3.8 billion years ago but didn’t get more complex than bacteria for around three billion years. So life would appear to have needed things to be stable for a good long while in order to get its act together down here. And the Moon provided that.

Also, those dark bits that make it look like a face: that’s ancient lava flow. The Moon used to be geologically active. That’s goddamn amazing.

Oh, and by pure coincidence you’re fortunate enough to live in the only period in history where the Sun and the Moon are the same size as seen from Earth: the Moon used to be much closer and is slowly moving away from us (an echo of that collision that created it), but right now it’s the perfect size to completely block out the Sun during a solar eclipse. Seeing a total solar eclipse might be one of the rarest experiences in the universe, and Earth gets to do it every year or so.

The Moon: it’s incredibly fascinating and crucial to the existence of every species, including us. Our ancient civilisations weren’t crazy to worship it.

So it’s definitely worth a glance now and again.

Yours ever,

APS

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