Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Tracking on the Moon

The moon holds some useful tracking lessons. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin's footprints are still up there in pristine condition, forty years after they were made; and with no wind or rain to disturb them they could be there for another million or more years. At the other end of the spectrum, tracking in earthly sand dunes on a warm, windy day poses a different kind of challenge as newly formed tracks vanish before your eyes. The same can be said for tracking in a blizzard.

The art of ageing tracks is a tricky one, and a lot of it is about reading the effects of wind, temperature and precipitation on different substrates. But while these forces can obliterate the signs we are trying to read and follow, they also provide a gauge for ageing a print. Are there raindrops in those fox prints? What time did it last rain? In what direction are those plucked pigeon feathers strewn? When was the wind blowing from that direction? The elements can be both hindrance and help to a tracker.

In this recent picture of October's waxing gibbous moon some of the craters stand out clearly. I commented to my wife how I like seeing the moon lit from the side as it were, because it gives good contrast on the craters, and she pointed out how it's just like having good light for tracking. That's right on the mark. Whether you're side lighting mouse tracks with the beam of a torch, following badger prints by winter afternoon sunlight, or picking out ancient asteroid track and sign on the moon's surface, the principle is just the same!

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