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K12 LibreTexts

8.3: The Face of the Moon

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  • The visible face of the moon has light and dark patches, which people interpreted in different ways, depending on their culture. Europeans see a face and talk of “the man in the moon" while children in China and Thailand recognize “the rabbit in the moon." All agree, however, that the moon does not change, that it always presents the same face to Earth.

    Does that mean the moon doesn't rotate? No, it does rotate --- one rotation for each revolution around Earth! The accompanying drawings, covering half an orbit, should make this clear. In them we look at the moon's orbit from high above the north pole, and imagine a clock dial around the moon, and a feature on it, marked by an arrow, which initially (bottom position in each drawing) points at 12 o'clock.

    Moon Orbit
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Half of the moon's orbit.

    In the right drawing the marked feature continues to point at Earth, and as the moon goes around the Earth, it points to the hours 10, 8 and 6 on the clock dial. As the moon goes through half a revolution, it also undergoes half a rotation. If the moon did not rotate, the situation would be as in the left drawing. The arrow would continue to point in the 12-oclock direction, and after half an orbit, people on Earth would be able to see the other side of the moon. This does not happen.

    We need to go aboard a spaceship and fly halfway around the Moon before we get a view of its other side --- as did the Apollo astronauts who took the picture below.

    Far Side of the Moon
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): The far side of the moon.