On a small-to-microscopic scale, the properties of the lunar surface are governed by a combination of phenomena—impact effects due to the arrival, at speeds up to tens of kilometres per second, of meteor-itic material ranging in size down to fractions of a micrometre; bombardment by solar-wind, cosmic-ray, and solar-flare particles; ionizing radiation; and temperature extremes. Subject to no meteorological effects and unprotected by a substantial atmosphere, the uppermost surface reaches almost 400 K (127 °C, or 260 °F) during the day and plunges to below 100 K (-173 °C, or -279 °F) at night. The top layer of regolith, however, serves as an efficient insulator because of its high porosity (large number of voids, or pore spaces, per unit of volume). As a result, the daily temperature swings penetrate into the soil to less than 1 metre (3 feet).
Long before human beings could observe the regolith firsthand, Earth-based astronomers concluded from several kinds of measurements that the Moon's surface must be very peculiar. The evidence from photometry (brightness measurements) is particularly striking. From Earth the fully illuminated Moon is 11 times as bright as one only half illuminated, and it appears bright up to the edge of the disk. Measurements of the amount of sunlight reflected back in the direction of illumination indicate the reason: on a small scale the surface is extremely rough, and light reflected from within mineral grains and deep cavities remains shadowed until the illumination source is directly behind the observer—i.e., until the full moon—at which time light abruptly reflects out of the cavities. The polarization properties of the reflected light show that the surface is rough even at a microscopic scale.
Before spacecraft landed on the Moon, astronomers had no straightforward means by which to measure the depth of the regolith layer. Nevertheless, after the development of infrared detectors allowed them to make accurate thermal observations through the telescope, they could finally draw some reasonable conclusions about the outer surface characteristics. As Earth's shadow falls across the Moon during a lunar eclipse, the lunar surface cools rapidly, but the cooling is uneven, being slower near relatively young craters where exposed rock fields are to be expected. This behaviour could be interpreted to show that the highly insulating layer is fairly shallow, a few metres at most. Though not all astronomers accepted this conclusion at first, it was confirmed in the mid-1960s when the first robotic spacecraft soft-landed and sank only a few centimetres instead of disappearing completely into the regolith.
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