NASA Releases Closer Looks at Apollo Landing Sites from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter

by Nancy Atkinson on September 6, 2011

Low periapsis Narrow Angle Camera image of the Apollo 17 Landing Site. Image is 150 meters wide, Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University.

New images of the Apollo 12, 14 and 17 landing sites are the highest resolution pictures ever of human forays onto another world, as seen from a bird’s eye view — or in this case, a satellite’s eye view. The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter dipped to a lower altitude, just 21 kilometers (13 miles) over the lunar surface.

“We like to look at the Apollo landing site images because it’s fun,” said LRO principal investigator Mark Robinson at a media briefing today. “But LROC (Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera) is looking at the whole Moon, and we have now taken 1,500 of these very high resolution images from all around the Moon which will help scientists and engineers to plan where we want to go in the future.”

Apollo 17 landing site taken by LRO in its lower orbit, with 25 cm per pixel. Credit: NASA/Goddard/ASU

Apollo 17 landing site from the regular 50 km altitude and about 50 cm per pixel. Credit: NASA/ Goddard/ ASU

Compare in the images above the Apollo 17 landing site with 25 cm per pixel (top) and 50 cm per pixel (bottom).

Most notable are the tracks where the astronauts walked show up better, and details of the landers/descent stages can be resolved better.

Robinson said he was looking at the new images of the Apollo 17 landing site in Taurus Littrow Valley with Apollo 17 astronaut Jack Schmitt and Schmitt said “You need to image the whole valley at this resolution!”

This is the third resolution of Apollo sites that the LRO team has released — the first came from LRO’s commissioning phase where the altitude was about 100 km and the resolution was about 1 meter per pixel; next came the release of images from an altitude of about 50 km, with a resolution of about 50 cm per pixel; and now from about 21-22 km altitude with a resolution of 25 cm per pixel.

“These are the sharpest images of Apollo landing sites we’ll probably ever get with LRO,” said Rich Vondrak, LRO project scientist, “as we’ll never go as low in altitude as we were in the past month.”

LRO has now returned to its circular orbit of 50 km above the surface. This altitude requires monthly reboosts and since keeping LRO in that orbit would quickly exhaust the remaining fuel, in mid-December, LRO will move to an elliptical orbit, (30 km over south pole and 200 km over north pole). LRO will be able to stay in this orbit for several more years.

“This has been a highly productive mission, releasing a total of 245 terabytes of data — which would be a stack of 52,000 DVDs,” Vondrak said. Next week the science team will put out their 7th public release of data to the Planetary Data System, making all that data available to the public.

The paths left by astronauts Alan Shepard and Edgar Mitchell on both Apollo 14 moon walks are visible in this image. (At the end of the second moon walk, Shepard famously hit two golf balls.) The descent stage of the lunar module Antares is also visible. Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/ASU

Robinson noted that the details of what pieces of equipment are in each location are verified by images taken from the surface by the astronauts. He was asked about the flags and if they are still standing: “All we can really see is the spots where the flag was planted because the astronauts tramped down the regolith. I’m not sure if the flags still exist, given the extreme heat and cold cycle and the harsh UV environment. The flags were made of nylon, and personally I would be surprised if anything was left of them since it has been over 40 years since they were left on the Moon and the flags we have here on Earth fade after they are left outside for one summer. If the flags are still there they are probably in pretty rough shape.”

The tracks made in 1969 by astronauts Pete Conrad and Alan Bean, the third and fourth humans to walk on the moon, can be seen in this LRO image of the Apollo 12 site. The location of the descent stage for Apollo 12's lunar module, Intrepid, also can be seen. Credit: NASA/Goddard/ASU

Since we can still see the tracks and equipment looking unchanged (at least from this vantage point) one reporter asked if these items will be on the Moon forever. “Forever is a long time, so no, they won’t be there forever,” Robinson replied. “The Moon is constantly bombarded by micrometeorites, and slowly over time the tracks will disappear, then the smaller pieces of equipment will disappear, and eventually the decent stages will probably get blasted by an a larger asteroid. The estimate is that rocks erode 1 mm per million years. In human terms it may seems like forever, but geologic terms, there will be no traces of Apollo exploration in 10 to 100 million years.”

This video shows more info and a “zoom in” of the sites:

Sources: Media briefing, NASA, LROC


Nancy Atkinson is Universe Today's Senior Editor. She also works with Astronomy Cast, and is a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.

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