The Moon

Kruger National Park · September 2019
By Brian Rode
Field Guide

It has been another great day with some incredible sightings and as we stand on the rocky ridges of the Lebombo hills and raise our glasses to toast the setting sun, which is lighting up the western skies in glorious bright red and orange hues, we realise how fortunate we are to be here. The wilderness stretches as far as we can see. We know that there are numerous wild animals walking in the plains below, living out their lives in the way that nature intended, and in the distance we can see a giraffe browsing peacefully on one of the knobthorn trees. One of the iconic African animals.

The seasons are starting to change now. Winter has officially ended and spring is upon us. The rains will only really arrive in a few months’ time. When they come the bush will green up as the grass starts growing and the leaves flush out from the bare branches. Already some of the migrant birds have returned and over the next few months more will arrive. The insects will also make an appearance, as will the other invertebrates. The scorpions will wander across the roads in search of prey, rather than wandering across the sky at night. Tonight the largest scorpion will shine directly overhead and will only go into hiding when its mortal enemy, the great hunter Orion, appears on the horizon in the east. The scorpion’s bright red heart will glow in the night sky. Red is the rival of Mars. Antares. Red is the colour of the full moon as it rises opposite to the setting sun, making silhouettes of the candelabra trees as they stretch their fingers upwards into the darkness. The moon is full and bright tonight. It is a beautiful, ominous sight, as the red reminds us that somewhere in the park a colossal beast will probably die. Red, streaming from its face where its horns used to be. Red drops falling into Africa’s red soils. It is full moon tonight, a pregnant moon rising as the sun sets on another day in the bushveld.
And as the moon rises it changes colour. A stunning silver orb in the velvet-black backdrop. Her face constantly shining down on us, lighting up the darkness. The white light casts shadows in the grass where tired rangers wait in ambush in the shadows hoping to stem the tide, to stop those who seek to exterminate our heritage. Another iconic African animal. Lions and leopards too, are hiding in the shadows. Waiting, stalking, pouncing. Trying to survive in these wildlands.

The moon shines down and the shadow of a scrub hare darts across the road, a reflection of the rabbit etched in basalt-blue on her glowing face. These darker patches on the moon’s visage are the scars of ancient volcanic eruptions and form vast flat plains in the lunar highlands. They are the “seas” of the moon and have evocative titles such as the “Sea of Tranquillity” (where Apollo 11 landed over 50 years ago), the “Sea of Crises”, the “Sea of Serenity” and the “Ocean of Storms”. Scattered across the surface of the moon are craters, memories of past collisions with other space matter. Plato, Copernicus and Tycho are some of their names.

The moon is a magnificent satellite orbiting the earth approximately 348 400 km into the sky. It is thought to have originated when a Mars-sized object called Theia crashed into the earth throwing debris into orbit in space which coalesced to form our moon. Some of the moon rocks that were brought back by astronauts have supposedly been aged as being older than the oldest rocks on earth. It is huge (with a circumference of approximately 10 921 km) in relation to satellites that orbit around other planets and is the 5th largest satellite in our solar system after Ganymede, Calisto, lo (some of Jupiter’s moons that are visible to the human eye from Earth) and Titan (one of Saturn’s moons). Perhaps by coincidence, the size of our moon and the distance of the moon from earth allows the moon to cover the Sun nearly precisely during a total solar eclipse.

The moon orbits Earth once every 27.322 days and it takes approximately 27 days for the moon to rotate once on its axis. As a result, the moon does not seem to be spinning but appears to us, on Earth, to be keeping almost perfectly still. This is known as “synchronous / captured rotation”. This is the reason that we always see the same side of the moon.

Each synodic month we, on Earth, watch as the moon changes phases going from completely black, to crescent-shaped, to quarter-moon, to gibbous and then to full as the sun illuminates part of the observable surface of the moon. When the moon lies on the opposite side of Earth to the sun we then see a full moon (unless we are witnessing a lunar eclipse). Our calendar months are generally based on the moon’s synodic month, although sometimes we do have months where there is more than one full moon. In this case the second full moon in the month is known as a “Blue Moon”. Both the Moon’s natural prominence in the night sky, its control of the ocean tides and its regular cycle of phases, as seen from Earth, have influenced human societies, cultures and art since time for us began.

Tonight, as we travel back to the lodge with the moon illuminating the bushes and landscapes with a ghostly glow we stare at the beauty of the full moon in complete awe.

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