US Satellite Photographs a South Korean Satellite from Lunar Orbit

This Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter image shows the Republic of Korea's Danuri lunar orbiter travelling above the lunar surface. Capturing the image wasn't easy. Image Credit: NASA/Goddard/Arizona State University

In 2009, NASA launched the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO.) Its ongoing mission is to map the lunar surface in detail, locating potential landing sites, resources, and interesting features like lava tubes. The mission is an ongoing success, another showcase of NASA’s skill. It’s mapped about 98.2% of the lunar surface, excluding the deeply shadowed regions in the polar areas.

But recently, the LRO team’s skill was on display for another reason: it captured images of another satellite speeding over the lunar surface.

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The Darkest Parts of the Moon are Revealed with NASA’s New Camera

This new mosaic of Shackleton Crater on the Moon was obtained with a combination of images from NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC) and ShadowCam. (Credit: Mosaic created by LROC (Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter) and ShadowCam teams with images provided by NASA/KARI/ASU)

While the surface of the Moon has been mapped in incredible detail over the last several decades, one region has eluded orbital cameras due to the lack of sunlight, which are aptly called the permanently shadowed regions (PSRs) of the Moon. However, two cameras operating on two different lunar orbiters have recently worked in tandem to produce a stunning mosaic image of the lunar south pole’s Shackleton Crater, a portion of which resides directly on the lunar south pole and whose depths have been shrouded in complete darkness for possibly the last few billion years. As a result, scientists hypothesize that water ice could have accumulated within its dark depths that future astronauts could use for fuel and life support.

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NASA May Have Found Hakuto-R’s Crash Site

This animated image shows the before and after comparison of the possible Hakuto-R impact site. Arrow A points to a prominent surface change with higher reflectance in the upper left and lower reflectance in the lower right (opposite of nearby surface rocks along the right side of the frame). Arrows B-D point to other changes around the impact site [NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University].

New images from NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) appear to show the crash site where the Japanese Hakuto-R Mission 1 lunar lander impacted the surface of the Moon a month ago.

The refrigerator-sized HAKUTO-R was built by the startup company iSpace and was launched in December 2022 with the goal of becoming the first commercial lunar lander to touch down safely on the Moon. However, during landing operations on April 25, 2023, communications ceased just moments before touchdown should have occurred, and the lander was presumed lost.

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New Spacecraft Can See Into the Permanently Shadowed Craters on the Moon

Images of the permanently shadowed wall and floor of Shackleton Crater captured by Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC) (left) and ShadowCam (right). Each panel shows an area that is 5,906 feet (1,800 meters) wide and 7,218 feet (2,200 meters) tall. Image Credit: NASA/KARI/ASU.

Shackleton Crater at the lunar south pole is one of the locations on NASA’s shortlist for human exploration with the future Artemis missions. But because craters at the lunar poles — like Shackleton — at have areas that are perpetually in shadow, known as permanently shadowed regions (PSRs), we don’t know for sure what lies inside the interior.  However, a new spacecraft with a specialized instrument is about to change all that.

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Remember That Rocket That was Going to Crash Into the Moon? Scientists Think They've Found the Crater

The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) – NASA’s eye-in-the-sky in orbit around the Moon – has found the crash site of the mystery rocket booster that slammed into the far side of the Moon back on March 4th, 2022. The LRO images, taken May 25th, revealed not just a single crater, but a double crater formed by the rocket’s impact, posing a new mystery for astronomers to unravel.

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Here’s The Exact Point of the Moon’s South Pole

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. The location of the pole shown here (image 1600 meters wide) may be in error by several hundred meters, wait a year for an update! [NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University]

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.

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A Spacecraft Orbiting the Moon Just Captured an Image of Saturn

Cameras can be finicky – especially ones primarily used for astronomy.  When used for a purpose other than their intended one, sometimes they result in horribly muddled or blurry images.  However, sometimes an image works out just right and provides a whole new perspective on a familiar scene.  That’s what happened recently when the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) turned one of its cameras toward one of astronomy’s favorite places – Saturn.

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NASA Spacecraft Takes a Picture of Jupiter … From the Moon

Jupiter seen from the Moon, as imaged by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera on 20 August 2021. Two of Jupiter's moons, Io and Europa, can just barely be seen here to the right of Jupiter. Scene has been enlarged by a factor of four. Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University.

You know the feeling …. seeing Jupiter through your own telescope. If it gives you the chills — like it does for me — then you’ll know how the team for the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter felt when they turned their spacecraft around – yes, the orbiter that’s been faithfully circling and looking down at the Moon since 2008 – and saw the giant planet Jupiter with their camera. If you zoom in on the picture, you can even see Jupiter’s Galilean moons.

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Lunar Spacecraft Gets an Upgrade to Capture New Perspectives of the Moon

Eleven years into its mission, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) is starting to show its age, but a recent software update promises to give the spacecraft a new lease on life. As NASA’s eye in the sky over the Moon, the LRO has been responsible for some of the best Lunar observations since the days of Apollo. This new upgrade will allow that legacy to continue.

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Lunar Orbiter Takes a Meteorite Strike Right in the Camera

The first wild back-and-forth line records the moment (October 13, 2014 at 21:18:48.404 UTC) that the left NAC radiator was struck by a meteoroid. Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University

On October 13th, 2014, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) experienced something rare and unexpected. While monitoring the surface of the Moon, the LRO’s main instrument – the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC) – produced an image that was rather unusual. Whereas most of the images it has produced were detailed and exact, this one was subject to all kinds of distortion.

From the way this image was disturbed, the LRO science team theorized that the camera must have experienced a sudden and violent movement. In short, they concluded that it had been struck by a tiny meteoroid, which proved to a significant find in itself. Luckily, the LRO and its camera appear to have survived the impact unharmed and will continue to survey the surface of the Moon for years to come.

The LROC is a system of three cameras that are mounted aboard the LRO spacecraft. This include two Narrow Angle Cameras (NACs) – which capture high-resolution black and white images – and a third Wide Angle Camera (WAC), which captures moderate resolution images that provide information about the properties and color of the lunar surface.

The NAC on a bench in the clean room at Malin Space Science Systems. Credit: Courtesy of Malin Space Science Systems/ASU SESE

The NACs works by building an image one line at a time, with thousands of lines being used to compile a full image. In between the capture process, the spacecraft moves the camera relative to the surface. On October 13th, 2014, at precisely 21:18:48 UTC, the camera added a line that was visibly distorted. This sent the LRO team on a mission to investigate what could have caused it.

Led by Mark Robinson – a professor and the principal investigator of the LROC at Arizona State University’s School of Earth and Space Exploration – the LROC researchers concluded that the left Narrow Angle Camera must have experienced a brief and violent movement. As there were no spacecraft events – like a solar panel movement or antenna tracking – that might have caused this, the only possibility appeared to be a collision.

As Robinson explained in a recent post on the LROC’s website:

“There were no spacecraft events (such as slews, solar panel movements, antenna tracking, etc.) that might have caused spacecraft jitter during this period, and even if there had been, the resulting jitter should have affected both cameras identically… Clearly there was a brief violent movement of the left NAC. The only logical explanation is that the NAC was hit by a meteoroid! How big was the meteoroid, and where did it hit?”

To test this, the team used a detailed computer model that was developed specifically for the LROC to ensure that the NAC would not fail during the launch of the spacecraft, when severe vibrations would occur. With this model, the LROC team ran simulations to see if they could reproduce the distortions that would have caused the image. Not only did they conclude it was the result of a collision, but they were also able to determine the size of the meteoroid that hit it.

LROC Narrow Angle Camera (NAC). Credit: ASU/LROC SESE

The results indicated that the impacting meteoroid would have measured about 0.8 mm in diameter and had a density of a regular chondrite meteorite (2.7 g/cm³). What’s more, they were able to estimate that it was traveling at a velocity of about 7 km/s (4.3 miles per second) when it collided with the NAC. This was rather surprising, given the odds of collisions and how much time the LRO spends gathering data.

Typically, the LROC only captures images during daylight hours, and for about 10% of the day. So for it to have been hit while it was also capturing images is statistically unlikely – only about 5% by Robinson’s own estimate. Luckily, the impact has not caused any technical problems for the LROC, which is also something of a minor miracle. As Robinson explained:

“For comparison, the muzzle velocity of a bullet fired from a rifle is typically 0.5 to 1.0 kilometers per second. The meteoroid was traveling much faster than a speeding bullet. In this case, LROC did not dodge a speeding bullet, but rather survived a speeding bullet! LROC was struck and survived to keep exploring the Moon, thanks to Malin Space Science Systems’ robust camera design.”

It was only after the team deduced that no damage had been caused that prompted the announcement. According to John Keller, the LRO project scientist from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, the real story here was how the imagery that was being acquired at the time was used to deduce how and when the LRO had been struck by a meteoroid.

Artist’s rendering of Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) in orbit. Credit: ASU/LROC

“Since the impact presented no technical problems for the health and safety of the instrument,” he said, “the team is only now announcing this event as a fascinating example of how engineering data can be used, in ways not previously anticipated, to understand what is happening to the spacecraft over 236,000 miles (380,000 kilometers) from the Earth.”

In addition, the impact of a meteoroid on the LRO demonstrates just how precious the information that missions like the LRO provides truly is. Beyond mapping the lunar surface, the orbiter was also able to let its science team know exactly and when its images were comprised, all because of the high-quality data it collects.

Since it launched in June of 2008, the LRO has collected an immense amount of data on the lunar surface. The mission has been extended several times, from its original duration of two years to the just under nine. Its ongoing performance is also a testament to the durability of the craft and its components.

Be sure to enjoy this video of the images obtained by the LRO, courtesy of the LROC team:

Further Reading: ASU/LROC