LRO Provides Flashback to 1966

LROC image of Surveyor 1 on the Moon. NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University

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On June 2, 1966 the Surveyor 1 spacecraft soft landed on the Moon, the first US spacecraft to set down on another body. Now, 43 years later the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera has spotted this historic spacecraft, sitting silently on the Moon’s surface. The scene shows the spacecraft (annotated with an arrow, and the shadow shows up very well) just south of a 40 m diameter crater and about 110 m northwest of a 190 m diameter crater lined with boulders. The landing site is in the northeast corner of the Flamsteed Ring, a 100 km diameter impact crater almost completely buried by mare lavas such that all that remains exposed is the upper part of the original crater rim.

Surveyor 1 took its own picture on the Moon back in 1966. Credit: NASA
Surveyor 1 took its own picture on the Moon back in 1966. Credit: NASA

Surveyor 1 collected over 11,000 images, most during the first lunar day between landing and July 7, 1966. The spacecraft continued to operate until January 7, 1967. The Surveyor images demonstrated that the lunar surface was strong enough to support a landed vehicle or a human. The detailed images also indicated that the surface was composed of a granular material interpreted to be produced by the impact of various size meteors over billions of years.

And 43 years later we figured out some H20 and OH were also part of the mix.

See the entire image swath at the LROC site.

Source: LROC

LRO Takes Second, Closer Look at Apollo 11 Landing Site

LROC's second look at the Apollo 11 Landing Site [NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University]. Click for larger version.

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The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera has taken a second look at the Apollo 11 landing site. These images were taken before LRO reached its science orbit of 50 km (31 miles) above the Moon, but the lighting is different from the previous images it took of this region, providing more detail and a whole new look at this historic site. This time the Sun was 28 degrees higher in the sky, making for smaller shadows and bringing out subtle brightness differences on the surface. The look and feel of the site has changed dramatically. See below for a close-up view.

.”]NAC image blown up two times showing Tranquility Base [NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University].
The astronaut path to the TV camera is visible, and you may even be able to see the camera stand (arrow). You can identify two parts of the Early Apollo Science Experiments Package (EASEP) – the Lunar Ranging Retro Reflector (LRRR) and the Passive Seismic Experiment (PSE). Neil Armstrong’s tracks to Little West crater (33 m diameter) are also discernable (unlabeled arrow). His quick jaunt provided scientists with their first view into a lunar crater.

Nice going LROC!

This article was edited on Sept. 30 to correct a mistake about LRO’s orbit at the time these images were taken.
See our previous article on the first round of LROC’s images of various Apollo landing sites.

Source: LROC

First Science Data from LRO; ‘Tantalizing’ Hints of Water

This image shows daytime and nighttime lunar temperatures recorded by Diviner. Credit: NASA/UCLA

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The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has successfully completed its testing and calibration phase and is now in its science and mapping orbit of the moon. Already, the spacecraft has made significant progress in creating the most detailed atlas of the moon’s south pole, and Thursday mission scientists reported some of the early science results, including “tantalizing” hints of water at the Moon’s south pole. So far, the data returned from LRO’s seven instruments “exceed our wildest expectations,” said Richard Vondrak, LRO project scientist at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center . “We’re looking at the moon now with new eyes.”

Last Tuesday, a final maneuver put LRO 50 km (31 miles) above the Moon, closer than any previous orbiter. LRO has already proved its keen eyes, imaging fine details of the Apollo landing sites earlier this summer with the LROC, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera.

Coldest place in the solar system

According to the first measurements from the Diviner instrument, which has infrared radiation detectors, LRO found that temperatures at about 35 Kelvin, or -238º Celsius deep in some permanently shaded regions. Vondrak said that these bitterly cold regions at the south pole “are perhaps the coldest part of the solar system.” With such cold temperatures, volatiles like water ice could be present, preserved for billions of years.

This image shows neutron flux detections around the lunar south pole from LEND. Credit: NASA/Institute for Space Research (Moscow)
This image shows neutron flux detections around the lunar south pole from LEND. Credit: NASA/Institute for Space Research (Moscow)

And indeed, first results from LRO’s Lunar Exploration Neutron Detector, or LEND instrument found hallmarks of hydrogen—a potential marker of water— not only in deep, dark craters, but in unexpected places as well.

“What it also seems to indicate is that the hydrogen is not confined to permanently shadowed craters,” said Vondrak. “Some of the permanently shadowed craters do indeed contain hydrogen. Others, on the other hand, do not appear to have hydrogen. And in addition, there appears to be concentrations of hydrogen that are not confined to the permanently shadowed regions.”


Surface topography

This mosaic shows altitude measurements from the LOLA instrument. Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center
This mosaic shows altitude measurements from the LOLA instrument. Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center

Data from LRO’s Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter, or LOLA, give scientists a detailed look at the topography of the lunar south pole, shown here. Red regions are high altitude, and blue regions are low altitude.

Some of the first results have turned up fresh craters, unknown boulders, and smooth sites that would be good landing sites for future humans or robotic missions. However, most regions are filled with rough terrain, which will make in situ exploration difficult. The roughness is probably a result of the lack of atmosphere and absence of erosion from wind or water, according to David Smith, LOLA principal investigator.

Another instrument, LRO’s Cosmic Ray Telescope for the Effects of Radiation instrument is exploring the lunar radiation environment and its potential effects on humans during record high, “worst-case” cosmic ray intensities accompanying the extreme solar minimum conditions of this solar cycle, showing damaging amounts of radiation at various points.

This Mini-RF image shows radar imagery of the lunar south pole. Credit: NASA/APL/LPI
This Mini-RF image shows radar imagery of the lunar south pole. Credit: NASA/APL/LPI

The Mini RF Technology Demonstration on LRO has confirmed communications capability and produced detailed radar images of potential targets for LRO’s companion mission, LCROSS, the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite, which will impact the moon’s south pole on Oct. 9.

LRO’s prime science mission will last a year.

“The LRO instruments, spacecraft, and ground systems continue to operate essentially flawlessly,” said Craig Tooley, LRO project manager at Goddard “The team completed the planned commissioning and calibration activities on time and also got a significant head start collecting data even before we moved to the mission’s mapping orbit.”

“There’s still an awful lot to be done,” says Michael Wargo, chief lunar scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C. “And the maps will only get better.”

See more information, including more images and flyover videos here.

LRO, Chandrayaan-1 Team Up For Unique Search for Water Ice

Chandrayaan-1, India’s first unmanned mission to the Moon, successfully entered lunar orbit on November 8, 2008

NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and India’s Chandrayaan-1 will team up on August 20 to perform a Bi-Static radar experiment to search for water ice in a crater on the Moon’s north pole. Both spacecraft will be in close proximity approximately 200 km above the lunar surface, and both are equipped with radar instruments. The two instruments will look at the same location from different angles, with Chandrayaan-1’s radar transmitting a signal which will be reflected off the interior of Erlanger crater, and then be picked up by LRO. Scientists will compare the signal that bounces straight back to Chandrayaan with the signal that bounces at a slight angle to LRO to garner unique information, particularly about any water ice that may be present inside the crater.

Both spacecraft are equipped with a NASA Miniature Radio Frequency (RF) instrument that functions as a Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR), known as Mini-SAR on Chandrayaan 1 and Mini-RF on LRO.

“The advantage of a Bi-Static experiment is that you’re looking at echoes that are being reflected off the Moon at an angle other than zero,” said Paul Spudis,principal investigator for Chandrayaan-1’s Mini-SAR,discussing the mission on The Space Show. “Mono-static radar sends a pulse, and you are looking in the same phase or incident angle. But with Bi-Static, you can look at it from a different angle. The significance of that is ice has a very unique bi-static response.”

Erlanger Crater from the Lunar Orbiter. Credit: NASA
Erlanger Crater from the Lunar Orbiter. Credit: NASA

Stewart Nozette, Mini-RF principal investigator from the Universities Space Research Association’s Lunar and Planetary Institute, said, “An extraordinary effort was made by the whole NASA team working with ISRO to make this happen”

While this coordination sounds easy, this experiment is extremely challenging because both spacecraft are traveling at about 1.6 km per second and will be looking at an area on the ground about 18 km across. Due to the extreme speeds and the small point of interest, NASA and ISRO need to obtain and share information about the location and pointing of both spacecraft. The Bi-Static experiment requires extensive tracking by ground stations of NASA’s Deep Space Network, the Applied Physics Laboratory, and ISRO.

Even with the considerable planning and coordination between the U.S. and India the two instrument beams may not overlap, or may miss the desired location. Even without hitting the exact location Scientists may still be able to use the Bi-Static information to further knowledge already received from both instruments.

“The international coordination and cooperation between the two agencies for this experiment is an excellent opportunity to demonstrate future cooperation between NASA and ISRO, “says Jason Crusan, program executive for the Mini-RF program, from NASA’s Space Operations Mission Directorate, Washington, D.C.

Apollo Landing Sites Pose a Threat to LRO Instrument

The Laser Ranging Retroreflector experiment on the Moon. Credit: Lunar and Planetary Institute

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The recent images released by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter of the Apollo landing sites are truly remarkable. But there is one instrument on board LRO that must avoid studying some of the the Apollo sites as well as other places where humans have placed spacecraft on the the lunar surface. The Lunar Orbiting Laser Altimeter (LOLA) pulses a single laser beam down to the surface to create a high-resolution global topographic map of the Moon. However, LOLA is turned off when it passes over the Apollo sites because bouncing the laser off any of the retro-reflective mirrors on experiments left by the astronauts might damage the instrument.

Don Mitchell, who owns a software consulting company and is writing a book on the Soviet Exploration of Venus, wrote about this problem on his blog, saying that if LOLA’s beam did strike the retro reflector experiment, “the light bounced back would be 1,000 times the detector damage threshold.”

LOLA Engineering model. Credit: Goddard Space Flight Center
LOLA Engineering model. Credit: Goddard Space Flight Center

The LOLA instrument is based on Mars Orbiter Laser Altimeter (MOLA), flown on Mars Global Surveyor and the Mercury Laser Altimeter (MLA), currently on MESSENGER. LOLA will perform the same type of work as these previous instruments, but with 3-5 times greater vertical accuracy and 14 times more measurements along the spacecraft ground track.

The Laser Ranging Retroreflector experiment was deployed on Apollo 11, 14, and 15. It consists of a series of corner-cube reflectors, which reflects an incoming light beam back in the direction it came from.

Ever since the experiments were deployed, the McDonald Observatory in Texas has beamed a laser at these mirrors and measured the round-trip of the beam. This provides accurate data on the Moon’s orbit, the rate at which the Moon is receding from Earth (currently 3.8 centimeters per year) and variations in the rotation of the Moon. These are the only Apollo experiments that are still returning data. A similar device was also included on the Soviet Union’s Lunakhod spacecraft.

David E. Smith, LOLA principal investigator confirmed that, indeed, LOLA is switched off over the Apollo and Lunakhod sites, to avoid damaging the instrument. He said the Russians have been very helpful in in providing the LOLA team the best known locations for the two Lunokhod landers. Lunokhod-2 has been located precisely and is routinely probed by lasers from Earth. Lunokhod-1 has never been found by laser, and it is not known for certain if its reflector is deployed. Smith said he and co-PI Maria Zuber have visited Moscow to consult with Russian scientists, who have shared their knowledge of the locations of their landers.

As Mitchell wrote, “While conspiracy nuts debate the reality of the Apollo landings, scientists must deal with some practical consequences of what astronauts put on the Moon.”

Sources: Don Mitchell’s Blog, email exchange with David E. Smith

Hat tip to Emily Lakdawalla on Twitter!

LRO Images Apollo Landing Sites (w00t!)

The Apollo 14 landing site imaged by LRO. Credit: NASA

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As anticipated, NASA released images of the Apollo landing sites taken by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO). The pictures show the Apollo missions’ lunar module descent stages sitting on the moon’s surface, as long shadows from a low sun angle make the modules’ locations evident. Also visible are the tracks left where the astronauts walked repeatedly in a “high traffic zone” and perhaps by the Modularized Equipment Transporter (MET) wheelbarrow-like carrier used on Apollo 14. Wow.

As a journalist, I (most of the time) try to remain objective and calm. But there’s only one response to these images: W00T!


Apollo 11 landing site as imaged by LRO. Credit: NASA
Apollo 11 landing site as imaged by LRO. Credit: NASA

These first images were taken between July 11 and 15, and the spacecraft is not yet in its final mapping orbit. Future LROC images from these sites will have two to three times greater resolution.
Apollo 15 site by LRO. Credit: NASA
Apollo 15 site by LRO. Credit: NASA

These images are the first glimpses from LRO,” said Michael Wargo, chief lunar scientist, NASA Headquarters, Washington. “Things are only going to get better.”

The Japanese Kaguya spacecraft previously took images of some of the Apollo landing sites, but not at a high enough resolution to show any of the details of the lander or any other details. But here on these images, the hardware is visible. “It’s great to see the hardware on the surface, waiting for us to return,” said Mark Robinson, principal investigator for LRO.

Robinson said the LROC team anxiously awaited each image. “We were very interested in getting our first peek at the lunar module descent stages just for the thrill — and to see how well the cameras had come into focus. Indeed, the images are fantastic and so is the focus.”

Apollo 16 by LRO. Credit: NASA
Apollo 16 by LRO. Credit: NASA

The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera, or LROC, was able to image five of the six Apollo sites, with the remaining Apollo 12 site expected to be photographed in the coming weeks.

The spacecraft’s current elliptical orbit resulted in image resolutions that were slightly different for each site but were all around four feet per pixel. Because the deck of the descent stage is about 12 feet in diameter, the Apollo relics themselves fill an area of about nine pixels. However, because the sun was low to the horizon when the images were made, even subtle variations in topography create long shadows. Standing slightly more than ten feet above the surface, each Apollo descent stage creates a distinct shadow that fills roughly 20 pixels.

Apollo 17 LRO. Credit: NASA
Apollo 17 LRO. Credit: NASA

The image of the Apollo 14 landing site had a particularly desirable lighting condition that allowed visibility of additional details. The Apollo Lunar Surface Experiment Package, a set of scientific instruments placed by the astronauts at the landing site, is discernable, as are the faint trails between the module and instrument package left by the astronauts’ footprints.
Zoomed in Apollo 14 image by LRO. Credit: NASA
Zoomed in Apollo 14 image by LRO. Credit: NASA

Source: NASA

LRO Hi-Def Lunar Flyover Movie


The folks at Goddard Space Flight Center working on the the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter mission have put together a flyover video from the first images taken by LRO’s cameras. Just a little appetite whetter for all the good things to come from LRO. Enjoy!

First Images from LRO

This image shows a cratered region near the moon's Mare Nubium region. Credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center/Arizona State University

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Woohoo! NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has taken its first images of the Moon! There are two cameras on board which combine to create the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera, or LROC. They were both activated June 30, and their “first light” images were of a region in the lunar highlands south of Mare Nubium (Sea of Clouds).

“Our first images were taken along the moon’s terminator — the dividing line between day and night — making us initially unsure of how they would turn out,” said LROC Principal Investigator Mark Robinson of Arizona State University in Tempe. “Because of the deep shadowing, subtle topography is exaggerated, suggesting a craggy and inhospitable surface. In reality, the area is similar to the region where the Apollo 16 astronauts safely explored in 1972. While these are magnificent in their own right, the main message is that LROC is nearly ready to begin its mission.”

Mare Nubium region, as photographed by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter's LROC instrument.  Credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center/Arizona State University
Mare Nubium region, as photographed by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter's LROC instrument. Credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center/Arizona State University


According to Robert Pearlman at collectSPACE, the LROC has some interesting sites lined up to image, including the imaging of Apollo landing sites.

However, the resolution of any images of Apollo sites will not be as good as those made later during the probe’s primary mapping orbit, a time when LRO will be at a lower altitude as it orbits the Moon.

The LROC Science Team has opened up a public request opportunity to suggest LROC Narrow Angle Camera targets using a public targeting tool. So, check it out and submit your requests!

The Apollo 15 and Apollo 16 landing spots are already on a list put together by NASA’s Constellation Program Office, as a “Regions of Interest” for the LROC. But all the Apollo sites are regions of interest for almost any space enthusiast!

Sources: NASA, collectSPACE,

LRO Successfully In Lunar Orbit; LCROSS Provides Flyby Video

LCROSS flyby video capture. Credit: NASA

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The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter fired its braking thrusters for 40 minutes early today, successfully inserting the spacecraft into orbit around the Moon. Over the next several days, LRO’s instruments will be turned on and its orbit will be fine-tuned. Then LRO will begin its primary mission of mapping the lunar surface to find future landing sites and searching for resources that would make possible a permanent human presence on the moon. Also, early Tuesday, the companion mission Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) sent back live video as it flew 9,000 km above the Moon, as it enters its elongated Earth orbit, which will bring it on course to impact the Moon’s south pole in October.

The two spacecraft reached the Moon four-and-a-half days after launch. LRO’s rocket firing began around 9:20 GMT (5:47 a.m. EDT) and ended at 10:27 GME (6:27 a.m. EDT), putting the spacecraft into an orbit tilted 30 degrees from the moon’s poles with a low point of 218 km (136 miles) and a high point of 3,000 km (1,926 miles). Over the next five days, additional rocket firings will put the spacecraft into the correct orbit for making its observations for the prime mission, which lasts a year — a polar orbit of about 31 miles, or 50 kilometers, the closest any spacecraft has orbited the moon.

Meanwhile, at 12:20 GMT (8:20 EDT) on Tuesday, LCROSS made a relatively close flyby of the Moon, sending back live streaming video. Watch the replay here.

LCROSS on its way to impact. Credit: NASA
LCROSS on its way to impact. Credit: NASA

LCROSS is now in its “cruise phase” and will be monitored by the mission operations team. During the flyby, the science team was able to obtain the data needed to focus and adjust the cameras and spectrometers correctly for impact.

LCROSS will never actually be lunar orbit, but is working its way to an elongated Earth orbit which will eventually bring it to the correct orientation for meeting up with the south pole of the Moon later this year. LCROSS will search for water ice on the moon by sending the spent upper-stage Centaur rocket to impact part of a polar crater in permanent shadows. The LCROSS spacecraft will fly into the plume of dust left by the impact and measure the properties before also colliding with the lunar surface.

Make Room at the Moon

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Lunar orbit is getting to be a busy place, with several different countries sending spacecraft to the moon. Currently orbiting the Moon are Japan’s Kaguya (also known as SELENE) spacecraft, which has been sending back 3-D movies of the lunar surface, and China’s Chang-e 1, which will gather information on the Moon’s chemical composition with its various cameras, spectrometers and other scientific equipment. In addition, two new missions to the moon will launch this year: India’s Chandrayaan-1 and NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.

Chandrayaan, which means “journey to the moon” in Hindi, will study the moon at many wavelengths, from X-ray, visible and near-infrared to microwave. It will orbit the moon at just 100 km above the surface. The mission is scheduled to launch on April 9.

“The low orbit will give us really high resolution data,” says Detlef Koschny, Chandrayaan project scientist. The principal mission objective is to map the Moon’s surface in unprecedented detail. Current lunar maps show detail from 30 – 100 meters across. Chandrayaan will produce maps with a resolution of between 5 and 10 meters across the whole surface of the moon.

The European Space Agency (ESA) is collaborating with Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) for the Chandrayaan-1 mission. A Compact Imaging X-ray Spectrometer will produce x-ray spectroscopic mapping of the moon, and the Infrared Spectrometer will observe the Moon’s chemical composition. Another ESA instrument is the Sub-keV Atom Reflecting Analyzer, which will study the interaction between electrically charged particles from the solar wind and Moon’s surface.

Eight other instruments complete the suite of science instruments, including a 29-kg landing probe which will be dropped onto the Moon’s surface at the beginning of the mission to conduct investigations.

Meanwhile, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) is currently undergoing testing at Goddard Spaceflight Center to get ready for its launch on October 28 of this year. LRO will spend at least a year mapping the surface of the moon. Data from the orbiter will help NASA select safe landing sites for astronauts, identify lunar resources and study how the moon’s environment will affect humans.

Engineers at Goddard are building the orbiter and testing spacecraft components to ready them for the harsh environment of space. After a component or entire subsystem is qualified, it is integrated into the LRO spacecraft. The core suite of avionics for the orbiter is assembled and undergoing system tests.

“This is a major milestone for the mission,” said Craig Tooley, LRO project manager at Goddard. “Our team has been working nearly around the clock to get us to this point. Reaching this milestone keeps us on the path to sending LRO to the moon later this year.”

Once fully integrated, the spacecraft will ship to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, Florida in August in preparation for launch. The orbiter and the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) will launch aboard an Atlas V rocket. LCROSS will study the poles of the moon to confirm the presence or absence of water ice in a permanently shadowed craters. The trip to the moon for the spacecraft will take approximately four days. The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter initially will enter an elliptical orbit, also called the commissioning orbit. Once moved into its final orbit, a circular polar orbit approximately 31 miles above the moon, the spacecraft’s instruments will map the lunar surface.

Original News Sources: Chandrayaan Press Release, LRO press release