Online Astronomy eText: Satellites (Moons)
Pictures of The Moon: A Colorful Moon Link for sharing this page on Facebook
(If you are looking for images of Charon, see Pictures of Pluto and The Satellites (Moons) of Pluto

     What in the world -- or more accurately, out of this world -- is going on below? The Moon never shows any color save for the reddening our atmosphere causes when it is close to the horizon. Both in photographs taken from the Earth and in closeups of the surface taken by Apollo astronauts, the Moon is colored in blacks, whites and grays, with no blues, reds, or other colors to brighten the view.
     A false-color Moon? Not exactly... but certainly not "normal". A composite of several images including a mosaic of exaggerated-color images of the lit portion of the Moon, a "cut-out" representing the unlit portion of the Moon, and a starry background that required a much longer exposure than the Moon itself. The captions of the images shown below explain the various ways in which lunar images are manipulated to achieve such a colorful image, and the reasons for doing that. (Noel Carboni, apod060907)

     A true-color image of the Moon shows virtually no color. (Image of Moon at perigee by António Cidadão , apod041021)

     Eugene Cernan on the lunar surface during the Apollo 17 Moon mission. Not one bit of color is evident on the lunar surface save for the items (such as the American flag) brought there by the Apollo astronauts. Click here for a panoramic view of the Moon from the same mission, similarly devoid of color. (Apollo 17, NASA (image scanned by Kipp Teague), apod051217)

     There are times when features are found on the Moon which are not completely colorless. The inset in the image below shows some orange-tinted soil discovered by the Apollo 17 astronauts in the Taurus-Littrow region, which was created by volcanic activity during the formation of the lunar maria; but such colored features are rare on the lunar surface, which is the reason this feature was noticed.
     The inset at lower left shows an anomaly in the appearance of the lunar surface. A small area of "orange" soil is visible on the normally colorless lunar surface. The grains which make up the soil, shown in the microphotograph which fills most of the image, are mostly black angular pieces of basaltic rock pulverized by meteoritic impacts, and orange-colored glassy particles which solidified from small droplets of molten rock sprayed into the airless lunar surroundings by a volcanic eruption. On the Earth such glassy fragments would noticeably weather and erode within tens of years, so when Harrison Schmidt noticed the off-color patch there was great excitement at having found evidence of "recent" geologic activity on the Moon. But as it turned out, with no water or air to provide weathering or erosion, fresh-looking lunar deposits can be surprisingly old, and the soil sample shown here was dated (by an analysis of the ratio of radioactive atoms to their decay products) to an explosive eruption 3.64 billion years ago, making it older than almost all Earth rocks. (Apollo 17 Crew, NASA, apod010523)

     Still, as demonstrated by the images below, it is possible to photograph a "colored" Moon and not be exactly lying. What was done in the image on the left below, and in the image at the top of this page, was to use graphics software to exaggerate (apparently by about twenty times) any slight differences in the tint of the lunar features, so that regions which have an unnoticeably slight orange or bluish tint in "true-color" images appear bright orange or bright blue. To show how this works, the image on the right reverses the process, removing 95% of the coloring; the result is an essentially black and white image such as is normally seen in photographs of the Moon. (On left: Johannes Schedler, Panther Observatory, apod060216; On right: 95% desaturation by Courtney Seligman)

     As the exaggerated false-color composite image above shows, slight differences in lunar color can be used to map the composition of lunar rocks from a distance. The image is a view of the lunar near side taken by the Galileo spacecraft as it passed above the North Pole of the Moon on its way to Jupiter in 1992. Blue and orange shades indicate volcanic lava flows. The dark blue of Mare Tranquillitatis, at bottom center, indicates that it is richer in titanium-bearing minerals than the green and orange maria to its left. Above and to the right of Mare Tranquillitatis, the dark oval of Mare Crisium is surrounded by pink colors indicative of the iron-poor, aluminum-rich feldspars which make up the lunar highlands. (Galileo Project, JPL, NASA, apod030829)

     A similar image created from images taken while Galileo was approaching the Moon, shows the familiar near in a familiar orientation -- as it would be seen from the Earth save for the severely exaggerated hues. Again, blue hues indicate titanium rich regions, orange and purple regions relatively poor in titanium and iron, and pink regions rich in aluminum. (Galileo Project, JPL, NASA, apod020316)