See if you can make out the dark areas on the waxing gibbous moon tonight. These smooth, low-lying lunar plains are called mare (singular) or maria (plural), the Latin words for sea or seas. You should be able to see the darkened portions on the moon with the eye alone. But if you’d like to scrutinize the maria more closely with binoculars or the telescope, the view may be sharper before sunset or at dusk – or before the nighttime accentuates the lunar glare.
In times past, astronomers really thought the dark areas contrasting with the light-colored, heavily-crated highlands were lunar seas. In some ways they were correct, except that these were seas of molten magma instead of water. Now solidified, this molten rock came from volcanic eruptions that flooded the lunar lowlands. However, volcanic activity – at least from basaltic volcanoes – is now a thing of the moon’s past.
For the most part, lunar maria are found on the near side of the moon. In this respect, that makes the near side – not the far side – the dark side of the moon.
Maria cover about 30% of the near side but only 2% of the far side. The reason for this is not well understood, but it has been suggested that the crust on the moon’s far side is thicker, making it more difficult for magma to reach the surface.
The lighter-colored highland regions of the moon are composed of anorthosite, a certain kind of igneous rock. On Earth, anorthosite is uncommon, except for in the Adirondack Mountains and the Canadian Shield. For this reason, people in this part of the world like to fancy that the moon originated from their home turf.
The prevailing theory states that moon was formed when a Mars-sized object crashed into the Earth, creating a ring of debris that eventually condensed into the moon. I suppose time will tell whether this explanation for the moon’s origin is true or false.
By the way, check out the video above from our friend Jessica Santascoy, who is Astronomy Outreach Coordinator at the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, which manages the NASA Night Sky Network, an EarthSky Tonight partner. See their Find Astronomy Events and Clubs widget on the right side of this page. Jessica wrote:
I remixed the sound for this video, NASA Mission Returns First Video From Moon’s Far Side. NASA’s GRAIL mission has beamed back its first video of the far side of the moon. The imagery was taken on Jan. 19, 2012 by the MoonKAM aboard the mission’s “Ebb” spacecraft.” The voice in the video is Maria Zuber, GRAIL principal investigator from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.
I’m a big advocate of women in science & technology.
This is my tribute to Dr. Maria Zuber. Go, Maria!
One last note. The lunar maria are pronounced differently from Maria Zuber’s name. She’s mar-EE-ah. These features on the moon are MAR-ee-ah.
Bottom line: Strange as it may seem, the moon’s near side is really its dark side. By that we mean the near side of the moon reflects less light – due to a collection of dark, low-lying lunar plains that are the solidified remnants of ancient seas of molten magma.