Since 2009, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) has been taking high-resolution pictures of the lunar surface. This data, along with the information from a laser altimeter mapping instrument has allowed scientists to create an incredibly detailed map of the Moon. NASA says they can now confidently pinpoint any feature on the Moon, including the exact location of its South Pole.
Whenever humans return to the Moon, a detailed “roadmap” will be extremely helpful for astronauts to accurately find their way. The LRO team has put together an interactive “QuickMap” where you can view and search for various areas on the Moon.
Even before LRO launched, the science team adopted a coordinate system for all the data called the Mean Earth/Polar Axis (Moon ME) coordinate system. This has now become the standard for mapping all lunar data.
The video above is a data visualization showing the location of the Moon’s South Pole. In the Moon ME system, the Moon’s South Pole is located on the rim of Shackleton crater at a point marked by a red pin. The visualization team at Goddard Space Flight Center says that if you imagine Shackleton as a very big face of a clock with noon pointing toward Earth, the South Pole is about halfway between 10 and 11 o’clock.
The topographical maps from LRO includes information from the laser altimeter which zaps the Moon an incredible 140 times every second, measuring the ups and downs, nooks and crannies on the lunar surface to an accuracy within four inches.
In my book “Incredible Stories From Space: A Behind the Scenes Look at the Missions Changing Our View of the Cosmos,” LRO’s Project Scientist Dr. Richard Vondrak told me that LRO’s legacy will be the basic ‘guidebook’ to the Moon, a handbook of maps to guide future explorers.
“We can provide topographic maps of the Moon that have finer grid spacing than the hiking maps at the US National Parks,” Vondrak said. “We know what the Moon looks like in tremendous detail, and we actually have better knowledge of the shape, contours and topography of the Moon than any other object in the Solar System. That includes the Earth, because most of the Earth’s surface lies beneath the ocean, and the seafloor is not mapped as well as the Moon.”
Lead image caption: As the Moon heads into southern summer the region around the south pole is better seen by LROC. One of the many goals of the LRO mission is to improve our cartographic knowledge of the Moon. [NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University]