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Luna Nova: Moon of the Cretaceous Skies

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Moon today and during the Cretaceous

Although I am a lifelong fan of science, I've also been a lifelong fan of science fiction—so I sometimes experience conflict in the DMZ where the two meet.

Having been raised on Star Trek, where the science and technology routinely violate known scientific principles (faster than light warp drive, for example), I learned to have leniency on some of those violations—at least, the ones that exist in order to make the story work.

But the stories that get the science completely wrong, for no good reason, get my militia up in arms….

Such was my reaction when, a few weeks ago, I happened upon the last two minutes of the series premiere of a new television show—the one that involves time-traveling colonists going 85 million years into the past to live among the dinosaurs. (Don’t ask me any more about the plot; I’ve only ever caught the last two minutes of each show when I change the channel to wait for House. All I know is each episode seems to end with people creeping through a jungle at night carrying torches….)

So what irked me so badly? Scene: colonists in settlement in Cretaceous jungle, night time, looking up at the starry, Moon-adorned sky. A child muses, "Is that the Moon?" (never having seen it before). "It’s so big!" Indeed, the Moon aloft in these prehistoric skies was depicted as truly huge—I’d estimate ten or fifteen degrees across, about the width of your hand spread wide at arm’s length (20 to 30 times the size of the Moon we know).


Enter "brainy" teenage girl to explain: The Moon is moving away from the Earth a few centimeters each year, so here, 85 million years in the past, it’s much closer to Earth.

How much closer was the Moon to Earth 85 million years ago? Do the math, brain: The Moon is currently moving away from the Earth at about 3.8 centimeters per year, so 3.8 cm for 85 million years equals 323 million centimeters. Sounds like a lot, right? 323 million of just about anything seems like a lot. 323 million centimeters is 3,230,000 meters, or 3,230 kilometers. Or a little over 2,000 miles—which, coincidentally, is about the diameter of the Moon itself. Since the Moon is presently 240,000 miles from Earth, being 2000 miles closer to us in the past (about 0.8%) would not have made it perceptibly larger—let alone appearing as big as a cantaloupe!

The Moon has been moving away from the Earth since its formation, which took place about four and a half billion years ago. Through tidal interactions with the Earth, the Moon has "stolen" some of Earth’s rotational momentum (spin) to gradually boost itself farther and farther away, slowing the Earth’s spin as a result. Back in the day when the Earth and Moon were young and fresh—and much closer together—the Earth spun much faster: maybe once in 8 hours. (But that was WAY before life existed, so try not to imagine the dinosaurs experiencing much shorter days, please.)

Oh yeah, in that same two minutes of the show premiere, the "brainy" girl (it’s not her fault; it’s the show’s writers, of course) also had an answer for why all the stars in the Cretaceous sky bore no resemblance to the constellations we know today. The Universe is expanding, she said (correctly), and so in 85 million years that expansion has caused the stars to change position" (not so correctly). The Universe is expanding, yes, correct; the stars in Earth’s skies 85 million years ago would have looked completely different, yes. But the two have nothing to do with each other.

The Universe is expanding and carrying all of the galaxies and galaxy clusters farther and farther apart. But this has no effect on the stars gravitationally bound within each galaxy. At the scale of a single galaxy, like our own Milky Way, the gravity binding the stars together in that great spinning spiral overpowers the effect of space expanding.

The stars we see in our skies are all inside of our galaxy, to which they are gravitationally bound. It is merely the motion of those stars within the galaxy as they orbit the center that change their relative positions, and so the patterns of constellations that we perceive. Analogously, continental drift on Earth may move a pair of land masses away from each other, but that large-scale motion won’t cause the trees within either of those lands to move apart.

Nit picking? Yeah, maybe. But I even do it to Star Trek on occasion….

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