LRO spots Apollo landing sites in high res

Bad Astronomy
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Sept. 6 2011 11:27 AM

LRO spots Apollo landing sites in high res

NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has been circling the Moon for the past few years, snapping away, taking hi-res pictures of the lunar surface from a height of a mere 50 kilometers (30 miles). A few weeks ago, NASA commanded the probe to dip lower, allowing even closer, more detailed shots. Skimming the surface at a mere 21 km (13 miles), it took this amazing shot of a site where humans once walked on the Moon:

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

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That is Apollo 12, my friends, the location where humans showed that not only can we explore other worlds, but we can do it more than once.

The entire shot shown here is a little over 350 meters across (pictures from Apollo 14 and 17 are also available at on NASA's website). Various highlights are labeled: the descent stage of the lunar module (left behind when the top half of the module blasted back up to orbit, docked with the command module, and returned home to Earth), the Apollo Lunar Surface Experiments Package (ALSEP), and even Surveyor 3, an unmanned lander that had touched down two years previously; one of the Apollo 12 mission goals was to land near it, examine it, and return pieces of it. Clearly, they nailed that.

The part of the picture showing the lander is really something. LRO took images of the site in 2009, but these new ones are more detailed due to the lowered orbit, and also a bit clearer due to the angle of the Sun being lower. You can see the lander's shadow to the right far more clearly.

... and those squiggly lines? That's where the dust was disturbed by the astronauts' bootprints as they walked around.

Yup. You are actually seeing physical evidence of human beings walking on the surface of another world.

And there's more.

In this picture, with the lander on the left, you can again see the path the astronauts took as they walked around on the Moon. If you follow it to the right, it splits as they walked around a small crater on their way to and from Surveyor 3. It's not obvious in the transcripts of the astronauts' conversation (either walking to or heading back from the crater) but it looks to me that when they walked to the Surveyor site, they went one way around that small (6 meter/20 foot) pit, and when they came back they went around the other way.

I'm not sure why they did that, but when I hike in the mountains I do that exact same thing. When I come across a field, or a lake, or some other interesting spot I go around it one way first and the other way coming back. I do that to see what else there is there to see. It's possible that Pete Conrad and Al Bean just preferred to keep the crater on their left or right as they walked around it, or if they really went around it the other way coming back just to see something new.

But either way, that's a very human thing to do, and it really brought home to me the reality of what they did. These aren't just pixels on a screen, or squiggles and splotches in a picture. These are historical evidence of one of the most extraordinary adventures we humans have ever undertaken. It was done in a time of increasing inflation and the beginnings of economic uncertainty that would explode in the 1970s, when racial strife was at a peak, and when we were deep into a war in a foreign land with no apparent hope of getting extricated.

Sound familiar? I will freely admit that the Apollo mission was driven by the Cold War and fear of the Soviet Union, but sometimes the fruit of efforts with dubious beginnings ripens into something that far exceeds the reasons for planting the seeds. For a period of a few years, time and again, we hurled men into space on a days-long journey to our nearest astronomical neighbor, seeing what humans could do, and learning vast amounts about science... and all the while creating new engineering to do it. We owe a huge amount of our technology today to those exploits.

Right now, the future of NASA is in considerable doubt. We don't have a rocket system to repeat these adventures, and even our ability to get people into low-Earth orbit is hampered. I am of the hope that these problems are temporary: not road blocks, but speed bumps. I can also hope that images like the ones above, and others from LRO showing the other Apollo sites, will remind us of what we can do when we dream big, reach far, and leap very, very hard.

Image credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/ASU



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