Why is the Moon Receding?

When the Apollo astronauts set down on the moon, they didn’t just plant the flag and take a selfie–they had science to do.

One of the experiments left by Apollo was a laser range finding experiment. By means of high quality retro-reflectors left by Apollo and two Soviet Lunakod missions, we now know that the moon is receding by nearly 4 cm per year. We also know our day is slowing down. So what gives?

The moon’s gravity constantly creates a bulge in the Earth, mostly in our oceans. But our daily rotation constantly carries that bulge eastward. The moon must then constantly pull it back toward itself–and the bulge constantly pulls the moon forward in its orbit. This has the effect of slowing our rotation and accelerating the moon’s orbit.

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When the moon formed, both it and Earth revolved much more quickly than today. The Earth probably have something like a six hour day, and the moon? We just don’t know. But the moon was much closer then, and both the Earth and its moon were partly molten, which means the tides were vastly greater than today (today, 90% of the bulge is in our oceans) –and therefore this process of recession and slowing operated must faster. The moon’s rotation slowed until its rotational and orbital period were in sync, and then its bulge faced Earth and it became locked.

Looking at the diagram, you might notice that there are two bulges, one on either side of the Earth. This is true, but for purposed of understanding what’s going on, this can be ignored. Since gravity weakens with distance, the nearer bulge pulse harder than the farther bulge, and the net effect is the same (if somewhat weaker) than it would be if there were only the nearer bulge.

Don’t worry, though. Although the moon is now almost a foot farther away that it was when we first set foot on it, it’s not going anywhere. The recession is slow enough, the sun will die before the moon can get away.