- From: baalke@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
- Date: 11 Jul 2005 16:45:02 -0700
NASA Science News
July 11, 2005
For the first time since the 1970s, a NASA spacecraft will get clear
pictures of Apollo relics on the Moon.
July 11, 2005: Inside the lunar lander Challenger, a radio loudspeaker
Houston: "We've got you on television now. We have a good picture."
Gene Cernan, Apollo 17 commander: "Glad to see old Rover's still
"Rover," the moon buggy, sat outside with no one in the driver's seat,
its side-mounted TV camera fixed on Challenger. Back in Houston and
around the world, millions watched. The date was Dec. 19, 1972, and
history was about to be made.
Suddenly, soundlessly, Challenger split in two (movie
The base of the ship, the part with the landing pads, stayed put. The
top, the lunar module with Cernan and Jack Schmitt inside, blasted off
in a spray of gold foil. It rose, turned, and headed off to rendezvous
with the orbiter America, the craft that would take them home again.
Those were the last men on the Moon. After they were gone, the camera
panned back and forth. There was no one there, nothing, only the rover,
the lander and some equipment scattered around the dusty floor of the
Taurus-Littrow valley. Eventually, Rover's battery died and the TV
That was our last good look at an Apollo landing site.
Many people find this surprising, even disconcerting. Conspiracy
theorists have long insisted that NASA never went to the Moon. It was
all a hoax, they say, a way to win the Space Race by trickery. The fact
that Apollo landing sites have not been photographed in detail since
early 1970s encourages their claims.
And why haven't we photographed them? There are six landing sites
scattered across the Moon. They always face Earth, always in plain
Surely the Hubble Space Telescope could photograph the rovers and other
things astronauts left behind. Right?
Wrong. Not even Hubble can do it. The Moon is 384,400 km away. At that
distance, the smallest things Hubble can distinguish are about 60
wide. The biggest piece of left-behind Apollo equipment is only 9
across and thus smaller than a single pixel in a Hubble image.
Better pictures are coming. In 2008 NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter
will carry a powerful modern camera into low orbit over the Moon's
surface. Its primary mission is not to photograph old Apollo landing
sites, but it will photograph them, many times, providing the first
recognizable images of Apollo relics since 1972.
The spacecraft's high-resolution camera, called "LROC," short for Lunar
Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera, has a resolution of about half a meter.
That means that a half-meter square on the Moon's surface would fill a
single pixel in its digital images.
Apollo moon buggies are about 2 meters wide and 3 meters long. So in
LROC images, those abandoned vehicles will fill about 4 by 6 pixels.
What does a half-meter resolution picture look like? This image of an
airport on Earth has the same resolution as an LROC image. Moon
buggy-sized objects (automobiles and luggage carts) are clear:
"I would say the rovers will look angular and distinct," says Mark
Robinson, research associate professor at Northwestern University in
Evanston, Illinois, and Principal Investigator for LROC. "We might see
some shading differences on top from seats, depending on the sun angle.
Even the rovers' tracks might be detectable in some instances."
Even more recognizable will be the discarded lander platforms. Their
main bodies are 4 meters on a side, and so will fill an 8 by 8 pixel
square in the LROC images. The four legs jutting out from the
four corners span a diameter of 9 meters. So, from landing pad to
landing pad, the landers will occupy about 18 pixels in LROC images,
more than enough to trace their distinctive shapes.
Shadows help, too. Long black shadows cast across gray lunar terrain
will reveal the shape of what cast them: the rovers and landers.
the course of its year-long mission, LROC will image each landing site
several times with the sunlight at different angles each time," says
Robinson. Comparing the different shadows produced would allow for a
more accurate analysis of the shape of the objects.
Enough nostalgia. LROC's main mission is about the future. According to
NASA's Vision for Space Exploration, astronauts
are returning to the Moon no later than 2020. Lunar Reconnaissance
Orbiter is a scout. It will sample the Moon's radiation environment,
search for patches of frozen water, make laser maps of lunar terrain
and, using LROC, photograph the Moon's entire surface. By the time
astronauts return, they'll know the best places to land and much of
Two high-priority targets for LROC are the Moon's poles.
"We're particularly interested in the poles as a potential location for
a moon base," Robinson explains. "There are some cratered regions near
the poles that are in shadow year-round. These places might be cold
to harbor permanent deposits of water ice. And nearby are high regions
that are sunlit all year. With constant sunlight for warmth and solar
power, and a potential source of water nearby, these high regions would
make an ideal location for a base." Data from LROC will help pinpoint
the best ridge or plateau for setting up a lunar home.
Once a moonbase is established, what's the danger of it being hit by a
big meteorite? LROC will help answer that question.
"We can compare LROC images of the Apollo landing sites with Apollo-era
photos," says Robinson. The presence or absence of fresh craters will
tell researchers something about the frequency of meteor strikes.
LROC will also be hunting for ancient hardened lava tubes. These are
cave-like places, hinted at in some Apollo images, where astronauts
could take shelter in case of an unexpected solar storm. A global map
these natural storm shelters will help astronauts plan their
No one knows what else LROC might find. The Moon has never been
in such detail before. Surely new things await; old abandoned
are just the beginning.
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