On Sunday, July 20, 1969, astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed the Apollo 11 lunar module, Eagle, on the surface of the Moon at 3:17 p.m. CDT. Later that day, Armstrong, age 38, and Aldrin, age 39, became the first human beings to walk on another world, 51 years ago this day. Fifty-one years before that, World War I was nearing its end while the 1918 flu pandemic was ramping up in its fifth month of a twenty-six month ordeal.
Armstrong and Aldrin landed at lunar latitude 0.7° N and longitude 23.5° E, in Mare Tranquillitatis (The Sea of Tranquillity). Back here on Earth, the lunar phase was waxing crescent (35% illuminated), and the Moon set that night in Dodgeville at 11:23 p.m.—just a few minutes before Armstrong and Aldrin returned to the lunar module after spending over two hours on the surface of the Moon.
Neil Armstrong stepped down onto the lunar surface at 9:56 p.m. CDT, followed by Buzz Aldrin at 10:15 p.m. After exploring the lunar surface and setting up several scientific instruments, Buzz Aldrin returned to the lunar module at 12:01 a.m., followed by Neil Armstrong at 12:09 a.m. Monday morning.
After five hours of work stowing samples and other housekeeping tasks, Armstrong and Aldrin tried to get some sleep during a scheduled seven hour rest period. However, there were no beds in the lunar module—not even any chairs! Armstrong tried to sleep on the ascent engine cover in the rear of the cabin and Aldrin tried to sleep curled up on the floor. Adding to their discomfort, both astronauts had to keep their spacesuits on. And the lunar module was noisy, bright light leaked into the cabin, and they were too excited to sleep. Aldrin got about two hours of restless sleep. Armstrong got none.
The lunar module took off at 12:54 p.m. Monday afternoon, docked with the command module piloted by Michael Collins at 4:35 p.m., and then the astronauts began their journey home.
One of the little known facts of the Apollo missions is all the high-tech “garbage” that was left behind on the lunar surface to allow the astronauts to bring back more moon rocks. All in all, over 800 lbs. of moon rocks and lunar soil were brought back to Earth during the six lunar landing missions, the last of which returned to Earth on December 19, 1972.
António Cidadão, of Oeiras, Portugal, many years ago produced a wonderful set of images showing the location of each mare on the Moon. His website has not been updated since 1999 and the contact email address provided there is no longer valid, and even after a thorough Google search I can find no way to contact him to ask permission to link images here to his site. Even worse, because his hosting site is not secure (http: instead of https:), WordPress does not allow me to link directly to his images so I had to put copies into my media library. Please know that the images shown below are all copyrighted by António Cidadão.
Each image shows north is up and west is to the left. This is direction of increasing longitude and therefore west on the Moon, but in our sky, east is to the left. In other words, these annotated images of the Moon are correctly oriented as they would appear to the unaided eye in the sky in the northern hemisphere. In the rest of this article, we will use the moon-centric east-west convention that Cidadão indicates in his image diagrams.
Let’s take a look at each of the lunar maria from moon-west to moon-east. Their fanciful names were mostly given (and codified in 1651) by the Italian astronomer Giovanni Battista Riccioli (1598-1671). Riccioli chose names related to weather, as it was then believed that the Moon, the closest celestial body to the Earth, exerted an influence on the Earth’s weather. This is perhaps not at all surprising given that the phenomenon of tides had been known since antiquity.
Most of the nearside west portion of the Moon is covered by a mare that is so large that it is given a unique designation: Oceanus for “ocean”.
Oceanus Procellarum contains the famously bright crater Aristarchus and the associated Aristarchus Plateau. In the image above you will notice what appears to be a tiny mare close to the limb of the Moon west of the southern part of Oceanus Procellarum. This is the lava-flooded crater Grimaldi.
South of Grimaldi and straddling the lunar limb is Mare Orientale. It is difficult to see because most of it is on the lunar farside, though libration can sometimes bring its oblique visage into view. The name Orientale, meaning “eastern”, describes its location on the eastward-facing limb of the Moon as seen from Earth, rather than its westward direction as seen from the surface of the Moon.
Mare Humorum is located just south of Oceanus Procellarum. It is round and inviting, though no spacecraft has ever landed there.
Mare Nubium is east of Mare Humorum. The large crater Bullialdus flanks the western edge of Mare Nubium, and Rupes Recta (the “Straight Wall”) flanks its eastern edge.
Mare Cognitum lies between Mare Nubium and Oceanus Procellarum. It was named in 1964 after the Ranger 7 probe took the first U.S. close-up pictures of the Moon’s surface prior to crashing there.
Mare Insularum is north of Mare Cognitum. Its current name was bestowed upon it in 1976 by lunar geologist Don Wilhelms (1930-). The crater Kepler on its western edge separates Mare Insularum from Oceanus Procellarum. The crater Copernicus is on the northeast side of its western lobe.
Mare Vaporum is the mare closest to the center of the Moon’s nearside. The bright crater Manilius lies towards its northeastern edge and the volcanic crater Hyginus and its associated rille (Rima Hyginus) are immediately to its south.
Mare Imbrium was created 3.9 billion years ago when an asteroid some 150 miles across crashed into the Moon. This ancient feature is so large that it forms the right eye of the “Man in the Moon” we see when looking at a full or nearly full moon with our unaided eyes.
Mare Frigoris lies north and northeast of Mare Imbrium. The dark crater between them is Plato. It is the mare closest to the north pole of the Moon.
Now we begin our tour of the eastern hemisphere of the Moon’s nearside. Mare Serenitatis has the distinction of being the landing site of the last human mission to the Moon, Apollo 17, in 1972. It was also the landing site of the Soviet unmanned spacecraft Luna 21 just one month later.
Mare Tranquillitatis is perhaps the most famous of the lunar maria, as it was there that humans first set foot on the surface of the Moon in 1969. The Apollo 11 landing site is located near its southwest corner.
Mare Nectaris lies south of Mare Tranquillitatis. This small, isolated, and nearly circular mare sports a prominent crater, Theophilus, at its northwest corner.
East of Mare Nectaris lies Mare Fecunditatis. Superposed upon Mare Fecunditatis is the striking crater pair Messier and Messier A with two prominent rays evocative of a comet’s tail. Named after the famous French comet hunter Charles Messier (1730-1817), these craters and their associated rays were formed from a grazing impact from the east.
Mare Crisium is a round and isolated mare that makes it easy to remember why it is called the “Sea of Crises”. The Soviet Luna 24 unmanned sample return mission landed there in 1976. The six ounces of lunar materials it brought back to Earth are the last lunar samples scientists have received.
Mare Anguis lies just northeast of Mare Crisium and is called the “Serpent Sea” for its serpentine shape rather than the more fanciful name “Sea of Serpents” referred to by some science fiction authors.
Mare Undarum lies southeast of Mare Crisium. Its uneven texture and lack of uniform smoothness appears to justify its name as “the sea of waves”.
Mare Spumans lies south of Mare Undarum and east of Mare Fecunditatis. The bright crater Petit on the western side of this tiny mare evinces a bit of foam on “the foaming sea”.
Mare Australe hugs the southeastern limb of the lunar nearside. Though obliquely viewed from Earth and wrapping around to the lunar farside, favorable libration makes it visible in its entirety on occasion.
Mare Smythii on the eastern limb of the Moon is one of two lunar maria named after people. The lucky honoree is English hydrographer and astronomer William Henry Smyth (1788-1865). The lunar equator passes through Mare Smythii.
Mare Marginis lies east of Mare Crisium, right along the lunar limb. The crater Goddard on the northeast side of Mare Marginis exhibits bright deposits on its northeastern side. This crater and its associated deposits can only be seen from Earth during favorable librations.
Mare Humboldtianum lies along the northeastern limb of the Moon and is the other lunar mare named after a person. The German astronomer Johann Heinrich von Mädler (1794-1874) named this feature after German geographer and explorer Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859).
This completes our tour of the 21 maria on the nearside of the Moon.