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The Moon in 1910

In most fields of science hobbyists dominated the scene until the 19th century, with scientific papers largely coming from country gentlemen's houses, not university labs. Those days are long gone in most disciplines, but in astronomy there has always been a place for amateurs.

While consumer-grade telescopes are obviously no match for the likes of the Hubble Space Telescope, amateur astronomers have made real contributions to modern science, through, for example, carrying out long-term monitoring of the planets in our Solar System. Time on high-end telescopes is a precious commodity, and they are rarely given over to a single observation for more than a few hours at a time, so an amateur who can observe Jupiter every night for months still has a big contribution to make.

Buried in the archives of the Centre for Planetary Science at UCL/Birkbeck is a glimpse into the role of the amateur, a century ago: a 1910 map of the Moon by Walter Goodacre, reproduced here as a huge 400 megapixel image:

Walter Goodacre was president of the Lunar section of the British Astronomical Association (the UK’s main amateur astronomy club) for forty years in the early 20th century. In that time, he prepared an incredibly detailed map of the Moon, 70 inches (1.78 metres) across, which he published in book form in 1910. The University of London Observatory (which, despite its name, is part of UCL Physics & Astronomy) acquired a copy of it, though it has of course long since been surpassed as a teaching tool.

Presented online here for the first time, both sliced up into plates as it was in the 1910 publication, and stitched back together into a single map as it was when he originally prepared it, Goodacre’s map of the Moon is astonishingly detailed, and gives a glimpse back into the days when astronomy was not done with computers, spectrometers and CCD chips, but with human eyes, pens, paper, and the occasional piece of photographic film.

The smallest recognisable features on Goodacre's map are a few kilometres across, which is roughly as good as can be resolved with a good quality telescope in the UK, even today. The limit to the detail in Goodacre's map, like any detailed observations made in this country, is the turbulent atmosphere above Northern Europe, which subtly distorts and blurs the sky. This is why no major optical observatories are located in this country.

The ultra-high resolution images of the Moon's surface we have today come from probes orbiting the Moon, in particular NASA's Lunar Reconnaisance Orbiter. LRO can resolve objects just a few metres across, and has even photographed the Apollo landing sites.

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Many thanks to the British Astronomical Association for helping with this page.

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