Book Review: The Apollo Guidance Computer

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Springer/Praxis has produced a small library’s worth of books about the Apollo Program. A recent offering from the publisher focuses in on the Apollo Guidance Computer. This topic, for the uninitiated, can be more than a little intimidating and if it is handled wrong veer off the path of a book about space flight and toward a pure “tech” book. This is not a problem that Springer/Praxis’ offering The Apollo Guidance Computer has, the book is well rounded, in-depth and easy-to-read.

Written by Frank O’Brien, The Apollo Guidance Computer is a thorough review of the computer system used during the Apollo missions. The Apollo Guidance Computer rings in at a whopping 430 pages – most readers will likely only pick out certain parts of the book to read. The book is, in a number of ways, many separate books in one – with details of the guidance computer, its development, the requirements to send astronauts to and from the Moon as well as the challenges that the engineers face in developing this revolutionary piece of equipment – all detailed within.

The book starts out by turning the clock back about 50 years to allow the reader to see what technology was like half a century ago. During this time period computers generally filled an entire room. This (obviously) was not possible in the case of Apollo’s guidance computer – and The Apollo Guidance Computer works to detail that story.

As far as O’Brien is concerned, he sees the book as something that techies, looking to learn how this computer system was developed, and space buffs who are seeking to learn the various intricacies of traveling to the Moon – can both enjoy.

While fairly primitive by today's standards, the Apollo guidance computer was revolutionary for its time. Photo Credit: NASA/Dryden

“It’s a bit different from other books that are found in spaceflight libraries, in that it is appealing to two very different groups,” said O’Brien during a recent interview. “Sometimes I joke that those interested in computers read it from the beginning till the end – whereas space enthusiasts –read it from the end to the beginning.”

For his part O’Brien acknowledges that not all parts of the book will interest all people. He is fine with that as long as readers enjoy the elements of the book that relate to them. He does hope that all readers pick up on how designers managed to pack away so much capability into a very limited structure. There was no disk, tape, or secondary storage – of any kind.

The book works to provide a link to demonstrate how the Apollo guidance computer allowed for one of the greatest accomplishments in human history. It details how difficult the actual lunar landing was and how the computer system was instrumental in accomplishing this feat.

Whereas many of Springer/Praxis’ offerings detail flight aspects of the Apollo era, this text takes a look at one of the essential elements that made those missions possible. While other books provide understanding of the Apollo Program in the broadest of strokes – this book allows readers to see the moon shot’s finest details. It also provides context into the era in which this machine was developed. Only in the 60s could an entry code be entitled BURNBABY (as in “Burn Baby Burn!”).

Frank O'Brien, the author of "The Apollo Guidance Computer" spoke to Universe Today about his thoughts on the book. Photo Courtesy of Frank O'Brien

America vs. Astronaut: The Case of the Lifted Lunar Camera

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Imagine you’re an astronaut. You have what it takes to be selected to fly a mission to the Moon. You train, make the trip, and become one of literally a handful of humans ever to have walked on the lunar surface. And when you leave the desolate beauty of the Moon behind in your Landing Module, and are just about to re-enter the Lunar Orbiter and head for home, you see one of the cameras that you used on the surface. If you leave it where it is it’s going to be lost forever, crashing into the lunar surface with the rest of the lander. If you take it, you’ll be going against standard NASA operating procedure since you hadn’t filled out the proper paperwork beforehand for official mission items appropriated by astronauts. Leave a piece of history behind to be destroyed or salvage it as a souvenir… what do you do?

Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell decided to bring the camera back, and now, 40 years later, his decision is going to land him in court.

Last June, the U.S. government brought a case against the 81-year-old moonwalker after he offered the 16-millimeter Data Acquisition Camera (DAC) up for sale at New York’s Bonhams auction house as part of their May “Space History Sale”. While it was common for Apollo astronauts to be able to keep various pieces of equipment and space suits as mementos after their missions, certain paperwork had to be filled out beforehand… it’s just the NASA way.

The late Donald “Deke” Slayton, head of the astronaut corps in 1971, mentioned this during an interview with the Tuscon Daily Citizen in 1972.

“They give me a list of things they’re going to bring back,” Slayton said. “I give it to the program office and they bring ’em back.”

This Data Acquisition Camera (DAC) was one of two 16mm cameras on the Apollo 14 lunar module "Antares" when it landed on the moon on Feb, 5, 1971. Credit: Bonhams.

The DAC, it seems, was not on any lists handed in by Mitchell. Yet it was never intended to be on the ride back to Earth, either. Rather its destination was to be in the bottom of a crater made by the landing module when it crashed back onto the Moon.

Must have seemed a rather wasteful end for a historic – and valuable – piece of equipment. Were it to go to auction it could have fetched between $60,000 to $80,000.

“We had an agreement with NASA management, that small items that didn’t exceed our weight limitations, we could bring back.”

– Edgar Mitchell to WPTV

Regardless of its value – sentimental or otherwise – NASA’s lawyer claims that Mitchell was contacted several times about returning the camera but never responded. Mitchell’s attorney, on the other hand, argues that too many years have passed for NASA to now claim the camera as stolen property.

When it was brought before a Florida district court judge to have the case dismissed, however, the judge had no option but to side with the government.

“‘It is well settled that the United States is not bound by state statutes of limitation or subject to the defense of laches in enforcing its rights,'” quoted Judge Daniel Hurley of an appeals court ruling. “Defendant’s allegations that NASA intended the camera to be destroyed after the mission or that it routinely awarded used mission equipment to astronauts do not preclude as a matter of law Plaintiff’s contrary allegation that Defendant impermissibly converted the camera.”

Bottom line: the case goes in front of a jury in October 2012.

Read more about this on collectSPACE.com.

China set to ‘Leap Forward in Space’ as Tiangong 1 Rolls to Launch Pad

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China’s human spaceflight program is gearing up to take a highly significant “Leap forward in Space” after their “Tiangong 1” prototype space station was rolled out to the remote Gobi desert launch pad at the countries Jiuquan Satellite Launching Center in Gansu Province in anticipation of blastoff sometime this week.

Space officials from the Chinese Manned Space Engineering Office have now confirmed that liftoff of the 8.5 ton Tiangong 1 human rated module atop a Long March CZ-IIF booster rocket is slated to take place during a launch window that extends from Sept. 27 to Sept. 30. The launch was delayed a few days after the recent launch failure of a similar Chinese rocket, the Long March IIC.

China’s burgeoning space efforts come directly on the heels of the voluntary US shutdown of the Space Shuttle program, thereby dismantling all US capability to launch humans into space from American soil for several years until about 2014 at a minimum.

The US manned spaceflight capability gap will be stretched out even further if NASA’s budget for commercial space taxis and the newly proposed SLS launch system is cut by political leaders in Washington, DC.

The integrated Tiangong 1 spacecraft and CZ-2F launch vehicle combination is slowly rolling out of the VAB facility

On Sept. 20, the integrated Long March rocket and Tiangong module were wheeled out of China’s VAB while sitting on top of the Mobile Launch Platform and transferred to the launch gantry at Jiuguan.

The goal of the Tiangong 1 mission is to carry out China’s first human spaceflight related rendezvous and docking mission and to demonstrate that Chinese space engineers have mastered the complicated technology required for a successful outcome.

These skills are akin in complexity to NASA’s Gemini manned program of the 1960’s which paved the way for NASA’s Apollo missions and led directly to the first manned landing on the moon in 1969 by Apollo 11.

Chinas stated goal is to construct a 60 ton Skylab sized space station in earth orbit by 2020.

Check out this CCTV video for further details and imagery of the Chinese space hardware which shows the how China will expand the reach and influence of their space program.

View this Chinese video from NDTV for a glimpse at Chinas long range Space Station plans.

The 40 foot long Tiangong 1 space platform is unmanned and will serve as the docking target for China’s manned Shenzhou capsules in a series of stepping stone learning flights. It is solar powered and equipped to operate in a man-tended mode for short duration missions and in an unmanned mode over the long term.

The initial rendezvous and docking mission will be conducted by the Shenzhou 8 spacecraft, which will fly in an unmanned configuration for the first docking test. Shenzhou 8 is scheduled to soar to space before the end of 2011.

If successful, China plans to quickly follow up with the launch of two manned Shenzhou flights to dock at Tiangong 1 during 2012 – namely Shenzhou 9 & Shenzhou 10.

The multi astronaut chinese crews would float into Tiangong 1 and remain on board for a short duration period of a few days or weeks. The crew would conduct medical, space science and technology tests and experiments.

China’s first female astronaut may be selected to fly as a crew member on one of the two Shenzhou flights in 2012.

Meanwhile, all American astronauts will be completely dependent on the Russian Soyuz capsule for trips to the International Space Station. Russia is still working to correct the third stage malfunction which doomed the recent Progress cargo resupply launch and put a halt to Soyuz launches.

Engineers and technicians are in the process of checking out all Tiangong 1 systems and preliminary weather reports from Chinese media appear favorable for launch.

Shenzhou 8 has also been delivered to the Jinquan launch complex for check out of all systems

Get set for China’s attempt at a ‘Space Spectacular’

The integrated Tiangong 1 spacecraft and CZ-2F combination is transferring to the launch site

Surf, Sand & Space: The Astronaut Beach House

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CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla – Astronauts preparing to launch into space for the better part of the last four decades have had a welcome refuge – the astronaut beach house. This small two-level structure it is often missed by those that are ferried past it to the nearby launch pads. The astronaut beach house is — for those set to thunder into orbit – a vital place to collect their thoughts before they make history. Let’s take a look inside, as three astronauts provide Universe Today with a guided tour of this historic and storied house.

Astronauts Robert Springer, Nicole P. Stott and Sam Durrance talked about their experiences at NASA's astronaut beach house. Photo Credit: Alan Walters/awaltersphoto.com

Robert C. Springer flew into space on space shuttle Discovery on STS-29 and on Atlantis for a Department of Defense mission on STS-38. For him, the beach house provided astronauts with a refuge from the hectic atmosphere that comes with preparing to launch to orbit. Springer retired from NASA and the United States Marine Corps in 1990. Afterward he worked for the Boeing Company as director of quality systems, Integrated Defense Systems. Springer views the beach house as a place for one to catch their breath – before the big day.

Sam T. Durrance is similar to both Springer in that he flew to orbit twice. His first mission was STS-35 aboard the space shuttle Columbia and his second was STS-67 on Endeavour. Durrance was a payload specialist on both of his two flights; this role required him to focus on each mission’s specific payload. Durrance is currently employed by the Florida Institute of Technology located in Melbourne, Florida, where he serves as a professor in the Department of Physics and Space Sciences.

Nicole P. Stott started out as a operations engineer at KSC in one of NASA’s Orbiter Processing Facilities. Stott supported human space flight endeavors in numerous roles at KSC before she moved to Johnson Space Center in 1998. She was selected for astronaut training two years later. Stott flew to the International Space Station on STS-128 where she stayed for 91 days before returning to Earth with the crew of STS-129. She would return to the ISS as a member of the STS-133 crew.

Stott came to agency later than Springer and Durrance and therefore her view is somewhat different. For her, the house served to both remind and include her in the area’s rich history.

“It’s a special place, you feel like your part of something here,” said Stott as she looked out from the beach house’s deck toward the ocean. “There is so much history here that while you know that when you’re here, it’s for an event that you’re participating in, but you’re aware that there is a lot that has gone on before you as well.”

The Mission to Find the Missing Lunar Module

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Where is the Apollo 10 Lunar lander module? It’s somewhere out there — orbiting the Sun — and there’s a new initiative to try and find it!

The Apollo 10 mission launched on May 18, 1968 and was a manned “dry run” for its successor Apollo 11, testing all of the procedures and components of a Moon landing without actually landing on the Moon itself.

After carrying out a successful lunar orbit and docking procedure, the Lunar Module (called “Snoopy”) was jettisoned and sent into an orbit around the Sun.

After 42 years, it’s believed to still be in a heliocentric orbit and a team of UK and international astronomers working with schools are going to try and find it.

The idea is the brainchild of British amateur astronomer Nick Howes who helped coordinate a very successful asteroid and comet project with schools and Faulkes Telescope during this past summer.

After consulting with people from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and other orbital dynamics experts, the Howes has assembled a team of facilities and experts, including the Faulkes Telescope, Space Exploration Engineering Corp, astronomers from the Remanzacco Observatory in Italy and schools across the UK.

They know they have a massive undertaking ahead of them to find Snoopy.

“The key problem which we are taking on is a lack of solid orbital data since 1969,” Howes told Universe Today. “We’ve enlisted the help of the Space Exploration Engineering Corp who have calculated orbits for Apollo 10 and working closely with people who were on the Apollo mission team in the era will help us identify search coordinate regions.”

“We’re expecting a search arc anywhere up to 135 million kilometres in size which is a huge amount of space to look at, ” Howes continued. “We’re aware of the scale and magnitude of this challenge but to have the twin Faulkes scopes assist the hunt, along with schools, plus the fact that we’ll doubtless turn up many new finds such as comets and asteroids makes this a great science project too. We’re also encouraging anyone to have a go as we’ll be posting the coordinates on to the Faulkes Telescope website starting in a few days”

While the challenge ahead of Howes and the team is enormous, and the chances of the team finding Snoopy are very small, the team are enthusing thousands of people with their own “Apollo Mission” – the mission to find the missing Apollo Lunar module.

Credit: Faulkes Telescope

Construction Begins on the 1st Space-Bound Orion Crew Module

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Production of NASA’s first space-bound Orion crew module has at last begun at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility (MAF) in New Orleans – that’s the same facility that for more than three decades was responsible for manufacturing the huge orange colored External Tanks for the just retired Space Shuttle Program.

The first weld of structural elements of the Orion crew cabin was completed by Lockheed Martin engineers working at Michoud on Sept. 9, 2011. This marks a major milestone on the path toward the full assembly and first test flight of an Orion capsule.

This state of the art Orion vehicle also holds the distinction of being the first new NASA spacecraft built to blast humans to space since Space Shuttle Endeavour was assembled at a California manufacturing facility in 1991.

This capsule will be used during Orion’s first test flight in space which could occur as early as 2013. Credit: NASA

Eventually, Orion crew modules with astronaut crews will fly atop NASA’s newly announced monster rocket – the SLS – to exciting new deep space destinations beyond low Earth Orbit; such as the Moon, Asteroids and Mars.

“This marks the beginning of NASA’s next step to send humans far beyond Earth orbit,” said Orion program manager Mark Geyer. “The Orion team has maintained a steady focus on progress, and we now are beginning to build hardware for spaceflight. With this milestone, we enter the home stretch toward our first trip to space in this new vehicle.”

The first unmanned Orion test flight – dubbed OFT-1 – could come as early as 2013 depending on the funding available from NASA and the US Federal Government.

Welding the First Space-Bound Orion at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans by NASA and Lockheed Martin contractor team. Credit: NASA

NASA is still deciding which rocket to use for the initial test flight – most likely a Delta 4 Heavy but possibly also the new Liberty rocket proposed by ATK and EADS.

The framework welds were completed using the same type of friction stir welding (FSW) process that was implemented to construct the last several of the 135 Space Shuttle External Tanks at MAF that flew during the shuttle program.

Friction Stir Welding creates seamless welds in the Aluminum – Lithium alloys used for construction that are far stronger and more reliable and reproducible compared to conventional welding methods.

The first Space-Bound Orion will look similar to this initial Orion Ground Test Article (GTA) prototype crew cabin built in 2010 at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility, New Orleans, LA after individual segments were bound together by Friction Stir Welding techniques. Note the astronaut crew hatch and windows. The GTA is now undergoing testing and integration at Lockheed’s facilities in Denver, Colorado. Credit: Ken Kremer

Orion spacecraft will be manufactured at Michoud in New Orleans, Louisiana, then sent to the Operations & Checkout Facility at Kennedy Space Center for final assembly and integration prior to launch.

Lockheed Martin is the prime contractor for Orion. The vehicle was recently renamed the Orion Multipurpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) after being resurrected following its cancellation by President Obama as a key element of NASA’s now defunct Project Constellation “Return to the Moon” program.

NASA's Orion Multi Purpose Crew Vehicle
The Orion MPVC Multi Purpose Crew Vehicle ground test article (GTA) is shown at the Lockheed Martin Vertical Test Facility in Colorado. The GTA’s heat shield and thermal protection backshell was completed in preparation for environmental testing. Credit: NASA/Lockheed Martin

The first crewed Orion won’t launch until the 2nd flight of the SLS set for around 2020 said William Gerstenmaier, NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations (HEO) Mission Directorate, at an SLS briefing for reporters on Sept. 14.

Lockheed has already built an initial version of the Orion crew capsule known as the Orion Ground Test Article (GTA) and which is currently undergoing stringent vibration and acoustics testing to mimic the harsh environments of space which the capsule must survive.

Watch for my upcoming Orion GTA status report.

Sketch of the Orion Multipurpose Crew Vehicle. Credit: NASA
Artists concept of the STS blasting off with the Orion Crew Module from the Kennedy Space Center. Credit: NASA

Read Ken’s continuing features about the Orion project and Orion GTA starting here:
First Orion Assembled at Denver, Another Orion Displayed at Kennedy Space Center
Lockheed Accelerates Orion to Achieve 2013 launch and potential Lunar Flyby

Book Review: A Dictionary of the Space Age

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Writing a dictionary is not the same as writing a novel. While it might seem difficult to mess up a dictionary, even one with terminology that is as complicated as that used within the space industry – getting it right can be challenging. For those that follow space flight having such a dictionary can be invaluable. While A Dictionary of the Space Age does meet the basic requirements easily it fails somewhat in terms of its comprehensiveness.

When normal folks, even space enthusiasts watch launches and other space-related events (EVAs, dockings, landings and such) there are so many acronyms and jargon thrown about – that it is extremely hard to follow. With A Dictionary of the Space Age on hand, one can simply thumb through and find out exactly what is being said, making it both easier to follow along and making the endeavor being witnessed far more inclusive. That is as long if you are only looking for the most general of terms. The book is far from complete – but given the complex nature of the topic – this might not have been possible.

Crewed, unmanned, military space efforts and satellites – all have key terms addressed within the pages of this book.

The book is published by The Johns Hopkins University Press and was compiled and written by aerospace expert Paul Dickson. One can purchase the book on the secondary market (Amazon.com) for around $12 (new for around $25). The dictionary also has a Kindle edition which is available for $37.76. Dickson’s previous works on space flight is Sputnik: The Shock of the Century.

Weighing in at 288 pages, the book briefly covers the primary terms used within the space community. In short, if you are interested in learning more about space flight – or wish to do so – this is a good book for you.

NASA launches Twin Lunar Probes to Unravel Moons Core

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NASA renewed its focus on ground breaking science today with the thunderous blastoff of a pair of lunar bound spacecraft that will map the moons interior with unparalled precision and which will fundamentally alter our understanding of how the moon and other rocky bodies in our solar system – including Earth – formed and evolved over 4.5 Billion years.

Today’s (Sept. 10) launch of the twin lunar Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) spacecraft atop the mightiest Delta II rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 9:08 a.m. EDT was a nail biter to the end, coming after a two day weather delay due to excessively high upper level winds that scrubbed the first launch attempt on Sept. 8, and nearly forced a repeat cancellation this morning.

Liftoff of the nearly identical GRAIL A and B lunar gravity mappers from Space Launch Complex 17B took place on the second of two possible launch attempts after the first attempt was again waived off because the winds again violated the launch constraints.

GRAIL A and B gravity mappers rocket to the moon atop a Delta II Heavy booster on Sept. 10 from Cape Canaveral, Florida. View to Space Launch Complex 17 gantry from Press Site 1.

Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)


After the final “GO” was given, the Delta II Heavy booster suddenly roared to life and put on a spectacular show spewing smoke, flames and ash as it pushed off the pad and shot skywards atop a rapidly growing plume of exhaust and rumbling thunder into a nearly cloudless sky.

The solar powered dynamic duo were propelled to space by the last ever Delta II rocket slated to depart Earth from Cape Canaveral, Florida. After more than 50 years of highly reliable service starting in 1960, the venerable Delta II family will be retired after one final launch in October from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

GRAIL and Delta II rocket soar to space.
View to Space Launch Complex 17 Pad A & Pad B (right) from Press Site 1. Credit: Ken Kremer

On this special occasion the media were allowed to a witness the launch from Press Site 1 – a location just 1.5 miles away from the pad with a gorgeous and unobstructed view to the base of the pad which magnified the tremendous roar of the rocket engines.

“Since the earliest humans looked skyward, they have been fascinated by the moon,” said GRAIL principal investigator Maria Zuber from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. “GRAIL will take lunar exploration to a new level, providing an unprecedented characterization of the moon’s interior that will advance understanding of how the moon formed and evolved.”

Delta II arcs over atop long exhaust plume casting shadow for long lunar journey. Credit: Ken Kremer

The spacecraft separation and deployment of the solar arrays worked exactly as planned, the mission team reported at a post launch briefing for reporters. Both probes are power positive and healthy.

GRAIL A and B are now speeding towards the moon on a low energy path that will take about 3.5 months compared to just three days for the Apollo astronauts. The slower and longer path covering more than 2.5 million miles (4 million kilometers) enables the spacecraft to use a smaller engine and carry less fuel for the braking maneuver required to place the probes into a polar elliptical orbit when they arrive at the moon about 25 hours apart on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day 2012.

“Our GRAIL twins have Earth in their rearview mirrors and the moon in their sights,” said David Lehman, GRAIL project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif. “The mission team is ready to test, analyze and fine-tune our spacecraft over the next three-and-a-half months on our journey to lunar orbit.”

During the 82 day science phase, the primary objective of is to study the moons interior from crust to core and map its gravity field by 100 to 1000 times better than ever before. GRAIL A and GRAIL B will fly in tandem formation in near circular polar orbit at an altitude of some 50 km above the lunar surface as the moon rotates beneath three times.

GRAIL lunar twins depart Earth for the Moon
All 3 Air-lit solids have ignited after all 6 ground lit solids have been jettisoned.Credit: Ken Kremer

The mission will provide unprecedented insight into the structure and composition of moon from crust to core, unlock the mysteries of the lunar interior and advance our understanding of the thermal evolution of the moon that can be applied to the other terrestrial planets in our solar system, including Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars.

Read Ken’s continuing features about GRAIL
GRAIL Unveiled for Lunar Science Trek — Launch Reset to Sept. 10
Last Delta II Rocket to Launch Extraordinary Journey to the Center of the Moon on Sept. 8
NASAs Lunar Mapping Duo Encapsulated and Ready for Sept. 8 Liftoff
GRAIL Lunar Twins Mated to Delta Rocket at Launch Pad
GRAIL Twins ready for NASA Science Expedition to the Moon: Photo Gallery

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

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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

Book Review: Lunar and Planetary Rovers

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Ordinarily if a book attempts to cover crewed and unmanned missions – the book is a compilation of space flight history in general. This is not the case when it comes to Springer/Praxis’ offering Lunar and Planetary Rovers. Written by Anthony Young, the book details both crewed (the Apollo “J” missions) and unmanned rovers (Pathfinder, Mars Exploration Rovers and Curiosity). The book is not a perfect blending of the two interconnected, yet separate programs – but it does have much to offer.

First published in 2010, the book is a well-researched, detailed account of the lunar rovers that flew on Apollos 15, 16 and 17 and the robotic explorers that have scoured the face of the red planet – Mars.

Lunar and Planetary Rovers covers both the manned rovers used on the final three Apollo lunar missions and the unmanned rovers used to explore the surface of Mars - under one book. Photo Credit: NASA/Jack Schmitt

Lunar and Planetary Rovers fills a need for an account of efforts to get wheels on other worlds. The book is filled with numerous photographs (both color and black and white) that have never been published before. In terms of the Apollo Program, Lunar and Planetary Rovers is replete with quotes from the astronauts that drove the lunar rovers on the Moon. In terms of the unmanned planetary rovers, the book pulls from the engineers and scientists that made (and make) these machines work.

The book is 305 pages long. It could have stood to be a few pages longer. One glaring omission in the general body of the book is that of the Lunokhods (these amazing machines are mentioned in the appendix of the book). Given that the Lunokhods bridge the gap between the Apollo Program’s manned lunar rovers (in that they both rolled across the lunar regolith) and the robotic planetary rovers – this is a fairly significant gap in coverage of the topic. The book also does not tie these two, separate, programs together very well (the jump from one topic to the other is jarring and not done consistently).

For some reason, Russia's Lunokhod Rover, the first unmanned rover to explore another world, is only mentioned in passing - at the very end of the book. Photo Credit: NASA

Even when one considers this slight flaw – the book still provides an accurate and useful history of rovers. Lunar and Planetary Rovers can be purchased on the secondary market (Amazon) for approximately $5 (that is including shipping and handling) the book is a good buy for those wanting information concerning the topic. For those that are not interested in the traditional, paper, format a Kindle edition is available for around $25.

With the launch of the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) or Curiosity as it is more commonly known currently scheduled to take place this November – this book serves as a historical reminder as to how the technology employed by Curiosity was both developed and refined.

Lunar and Planetary Rovers details all of the rovers to traverse the surface of the red planet, from the Mars Pathfinder; seen here, to Curiosity - currently set to launch on Nov. 25, 2011. Photo Credit: NASA.gov