Look Inside a Lunar Crater

Brightening the shadowed area reveals details of the crater floor...and even more boulders!


The crater shown above is located in the lunar highlands and is filled with and surrounded by boulders of all sizes and shapes. It is approximately 550 meters (1800 feet) wide yet is still considered a small crater, and could have been caused by either a direct impact by a meteorite or by an ejected bit of material from another impact. Scientists studying the Moon attempt to figure out how small craters like this were formed by their shapes and the material seen around them…although sometimes the same results can be achieved by different events.

For example, when an object from space strikes the Moon, it is typically traveling around 20 km per second (12 miles/sec). If the impact site happens to have a very hard subsurface, it can make a crater with scattered bouldery chunks composed of the hard material around it. But, if a large piece of ejected material from another impact were to strike the lunar surface at a much slower speed, as ejecta typically do (since they travel slower than incoming space debris and the Moon’s escape velocity is fairly low, meaning any ejecta that does fall back to the surface must be traveling slower than 2.38 km/s,) then the ejected chunk could break apart on impact and scatter boulders of itself around the crater…regardless of subsurface composition.

Really the only way to tell for sure which scenario has taken place around a given crater – such as the one above – is to collect and return samples from the site so they can be tested. (Of course that’s much easier said than done!)

You can read more about this image on Arizona State University’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera site here.

And as an added treat, take a look deep into the shadows of the crater’s interior below…I tweaked the image curves in Photoshop to wrestle some of the details out of there!


Brightening the shadowed area reveals details of the crater floor...and even more boulders!

Image credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University. (Edited by J. Major.)

P.S.: Want to see both image versions combined? Click here. (Thanks to Mike C. for the suggestion!)

Asteroid Observing Alert

2011 GP59 imaged remotely from the GRAS Observatory. Credit: Ernesto Guido & Giovanni Sostero


A newly discovered asteroid could provide one of the best recent viewing opportunities for amateur astronomers, according to the British Astronomical Association. “This is the best NEO close approach these past few years and is bright enough to be observed visually in large (>20cm., or 8-inch) aperture telescopes when on the night of Thursday 14th it will appear as a faint slow-moving star,” writes Richard Miles, the director of the BAA’s Asteroids and Remote Planets Section.

UPDATE: See a new picture of asteroid 2011 GP59 from Ernesto Guido & Giovanni Sostero taken on April 14, 2011, below.

2011 GP59 imaged remotely from the GRAS Observatory. Credit: Ernesto Guido & Giovanni Sostero

Guido & Sostero sent us a note that they imaged 2011 GP59 early on April 14, remotely from the GRAS Observatory (near Mayhill, New Mexico USA) through a 0.51-m, f/6.9 reflector + CCD.

“It’s a single unfiltered exposure of 600 seconds, showing 2011 GP59 as trail with brightness fluctuations clearly evident,” they said.

(end of 4/14 update)

2011 GP59 was discovered just a few days ago and will make its closest approach to the Earth on April 15 at 19h UT at 1.39 lunar-distances. But it will be brightest at an average magnitude of 13.2 around 00h UT on the night of April 14/15 when Miles says it will be very favorably placed in the sky for observers worldwide.
The asteroid is approximately 60 meters in diameter and appears to be rotating very quickly, about once every 7.35 minutes. Its oblong in shape and rotation will vary the object’s brightness every 4 minutes or so.

Miles reported that David Briggs observing with the Hampshire Astronomy Group’s 0.4-m instrument on the evening of April 11 commented, “This is probably the fastest rotator I’ve seen so far in that it completely disappears from view every 3 to 4 images.”

This object was discovered on the night of April 8/9 by the Observatorio Astronomico de Mallorca (OAM) using a 0.45-m f/2.8 reflector at their La Sagra facilities (J75) in Andalusia, Spain (see http://www.minorplanets.org/OLS/ ). The observers involved were S. Sanchez, J. Nomen, R. Stoss, M. Hurtado, J. A. Jaume and W. K. Y. Yeung.

Brian Skiff of Lowell Observatory has completed a lightcurve analysis which can be found at this link, and positions can be found using the Minor Planet Center’s ephemeris service at this link. You can also find more information on this object from the website of the Remanzacco Observatory in Italy.

The British Astronomical Association is also seeking observations of the Moon on Friday, April 15, between 19:00 and 21:00 UT, when the Aristarchus and Herodotus area of the Moon will match the same illumination, to within +/- 0.5 degrees, as that observed during the famous Transient Lunar Phenomena (TLP) seen by Greenacre and Barr from Flagstaff observatory back on Oct. 30, 1963.

TLPs are very short changes in the brightness of patches on the face of the Moon, which can last anywhere from a few seconds to a few hours and can grow from less than a few to a hundred kilometers in size. This phenomenon has been observed by hundreds of amateur and professional astronomers, but how and why this occurs is not understood. Some astronomers believe that they are the outcome of lunar outgassing, where gas is being released from the surface of the Moon, but most commonly astronomers think it could be an effect from Earth’s own atmosphere.

If you want to help understand TLPs and perhaps observe an event like this for yourself, the BAA Lunar Section is looking for high resolution monochrome, or especially color, images of this area during this time period,, which favors observers in Europe.

But you can check this website from the University of Aberystwyth for many locations around the world of when would be a good time to observe a TLP.

See more information about how to observe a TLP and how to report your observations at the BAA website.

Sources: BAA, BAA (again) University of Aberystwyth

The Great Moon Hoax of 1835

A lithograph published in the New York Sun newspaper in 1835 showing life on the Moon. Credit: Wikipedia


Say the words “Moon Hoax” these days, and everyone thinks you are talking about the people who don’t believe the Apollo astronauts ever went to the Moon. But back in 1835 there was the original Moon hoax that thousands of people fell for, despite the tall tale being complete fiction. A series of articles were published in the New York Sun newspaper reporting incredible new astronomical observations of the Moon supposedly made by astronomer Sir John Herschel during an observing run at the Cape of Good Hope with his powerful new telescope. Detailed descriptions of winged beings, plants, animals and a sapphire temple increased sales and subscriptions to the fledgling newspaper.

Here’s a selection from one of the articles:

“We counted three parties of these creatures, of twelve, nine and fifteen in each, walking erect towards a small wood… Certainly they were like human beings, for their wings had now disappeared and their attitude in walking was both erect and dignified… About half of the first party had passed beyond our canvas; but of all the others we had perfectly distinct and deliberate view. They averaged four feet in height, were covered, except on the face, with short and glossy copper-colored hair, and had wings composed of a thin membrane, without hair, lying snugly upon their backs from the top of the shoulders to the calves of their legs.”

The descriptions were allegedly reprinted from the nonexistent Edinburgh Journal of Science, and only several weeks after the articles were published did questions arise about the truth of these tales. The newspaper did not issue a retraction back then, and now, even over 175 years later has not issued a full retraction of it, either.

It is said that Herschel was initially amused by the hoax, noting that his own real observations could never be as exciting. But he became annoyed later when he had to answer questions from people who believed the hoax was serious.

To be honest, I had not heard of this hoax until it was discussed by professor Rob Knop in today’s 365 Days of Astronomy podcast. He does a great job telling the story, so it is definitely worth a listen.

Sources: 365 Days of Astronomy, HistoryBuff, Wikipedia

NASAs First Orion Capsule and New Space Operations Center Unveiled

Lockheed Martin’s Space Operations Simulation Center in Littleton, Colorado, simulates on-orbit docking maneuvers with full-scale Orion and International Space Station mockups. The spacious center includes an 18,000 square-foot high bay area used to validate Orion’s new relative navigation system (STORRM), which will be tested on orbit during the STS-134 mission set to blast off on April19, 2011. Credit: Lockheed Martin


The inaugural version of NASA’s new Orion human space exploration capsule was unveiled by Lockheed Martin at the company’s new state-of-the-art Space Operation Simulation Center (SOSC) located in Denver, Colorado. Orion is designed to fly human crews to low Earth orbit (LEO) and the International Space Station, the Moon, Asteroids, Lagrange Points and beyond to deep space and Mars.

Lockheed Martin is aiming for a first unmanned orbital test flight of Orion as soon as 2013, said John Karas, vice president and general manager for Lockheed Martin’s Human Space Flight programs in an interview with Universe Today . The first operational flight with humans on board is now set for 2016 as stipulated in the NASA Authorization Act of 2010.

Orion manned capsule could launch in 2016 atop proposed NASA heavy lift booster from the Kennedy Space Center

This Orion prototype capsule was assembled at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility (MAF) in New Orleans, LA and shipped by truck to Denver. At Denver, the capsule will be put through a rigorous testing program to simulate all aspects of a space mission from launch to landing and examine whether the vehicle can withstand the harsh and unforgiving environment of deep space.

Orion was originally designed to be launched by the Ares 1 booster rocket, as part of NASA’s Project Constellation Return to the Moon program, now cancelled by President Obama. The initial Orion test flight will likely be atop a Delta IV Heavy rocket, Karas told me. The first manned flight is planned for the new heavy lift rocket ordered by the US Congress to replace the Project Constellation architecture.

The goal is to produce a new, US-built manned capsule capable of launching American astronauts into space following the looming forced retirement of NASA’s Space Shuttle orbiters later this year. Thus there will be a gap of at least three years until US astronauts again can launch from US soil.

“Our nation’s next bold step in exploration could begin by 2016,” said Karas in a statement. “Orion was designed from inception to fly multiple, deep-space missions. The spacecraft is an incredibly robust, technically advanced vehicle capable of safely transporting humans to asteroids, Lagrange Points and other deep space destinations that will put us on an affordable and sustainable path to Mars.”

Jim Bray, Director, Orion Crew & Service Module, unveils the first Orion crew module to guests and media at the Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company Waterton Facility in Denver, CO. The vehicle is temporarily positioned in the composite heat shield before installation begins. Following installation of the heat shield and thermal backshell panels, the spacecraft will undergo rigorous testing to validate Orion’s ability to endure the harsh environments of deep space. Credit: Lockheed Martin

Lockheed Martin is the prime contractor for Orion under a multiyear contract awarded by NASA worth some $3.9 Billion US Dollars.

The SOSC was built at a cost of several million dollars. The 41,000 square foot facility will be used to test and validate vehicles, equipment and software for future human spaceflight programs to ensure safe, affordable and sustainable space exploration.

Mission scenarios include docking to the International Space Station, exploring the Moon, visiting an Asteroid and even journeying to Mars. Lockheed has independently proposed the exploration of several challenging deep space targets by astronauts with Orion crew vehicles which I’ll report on in upcoming features.

Orion capsule and Abort rocket mockups on display at Kennedy Space Center.
Full scale mockups of the Orion capsule and emergency abort rocket are on public display at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida. Orion crew capsule mockup (at left) and Launch Abort System (LAS) at right. The emergency rocket will be bolted atop an Orion spaceship for the initial orbital test flight currently slated for 2013 launch. The LAS mockup was used in launch pad exercises at the New Mexico launch site of the LAS rocket blast-off in May 2010. Credit: Ken Kremer

The SOSC facility provides the capability for NASA and Lockheed Martin engineers to conduct full-scale motion simulations of many types of manned and robotic space missions. Demonstrations are run using laser and optically guided robotic navigation systems.
Inside the SOSC, engineers can test the performance of a vehicles ranging, rendezvous, docking, proximity operations, imaging, descent and landing systems for Earth orbiting mission as well as those to other bodies in our solar system.

“The Orion spacecraft is a state-of-the-art deep space vehicle that incorporates the technological advances in human life support systems that have accrued over the last 35 years since the Space Shuttle was designed.” says Karas. “In addition, the Orion program has recently been streamlined for additional affordability, setting new standards for reduced NASA oversight. Orion is compatible with all the potential HLLVs that are under consideration by NASA, including the use of a Delta IV heavy for early test flights.”

Orion approaches the ISS

At this moment, the SOSC is being used to support a test of Orion hardware that will be flying on the upcoming STS-134 mission of Space Shuttle Endeavour. Orion’s Relative Navigation System – dubbed STORRM (Sensor Test for Orion RelNav Risk Mitigation) – will be put through its paces in several docking and navigation tests by the shuttle astronauts as they approach and depart the ISS during the STS-134 flight slated to launch on April19, 2011.

The Orion flight schedule starting in 2013 is however fully dependent on the level of funding which NASA receives from the Federal Government.

This past year the, Orion work was significantly slowed by large budget cuts and the future outlook is murky. Project Orion is receiving about half the funding originally planned by NASA.

And more deep cuts are in store for NASA’s budget – including both manned and unmanned projects – as both political parties wrangle about priorities as they try to pass a federal budget for this fiscal year. Until then, NASA and the entire US government are currently operating under a series of continuing resolutions passed by Congress – and the future is anything but certain.

Orion prototype crew cabin with crew hatch and windows
built at NASA Michoud Assembly Facility, New Orleans, LA. Credit: Ken Kremer
Lockheed Martin team of aerospace engineers and technicians poses with first Orion crew cabin after welding into one piece at NASA Michoud Assembly Facility, New Orleans, LA. Credit: Ken Kremer
Orion and ISS simulated docking

From the Earth and Moon (and Russia) With Love

Russia's Elektro-L spacecraft captured this view of the Moon over the Red Sea region of the Earth. Credit: NPO Lavochkin


This stunning picture of the Moon and Earth was taken by Russia’s new Elektro-L spacecraft, a weather-forecasting satellite that launched in January 2011. This is the first major spacecraft developed in post-Soviet Russia, and it is designed to give Russian meteorologists the ability to watch the entire disk of the planet, thanks to the satellite’s position in the geostationary orbit 36,000 kilometers above the equator. The clarity of the images is fantastic, as you can see in another image of just the Earth, below. The Elektro-L is designed to last at least a decade, and will enable local and global weather forecasting, analysis of oceanic conditions, as well as space weather monitoring, such as measurements of solar radiation, properties of Earth’s ionosphere and magnetic field.

On Feb. 26, 2011, at 14:30 Moscow Time, the Elektro-L satellite produced its first breathtaking image of the home planet. Credit: NPO Lavochkin

Learn more about the Elektro-L mission at their website.

h/t: SDO Facebook page.

Your Pictures of the “Super” Full Moon

The full Moon on March 19, 2011, as seen in Ankara, Turkey. Credit: Ra?id Tu?ra


How super was your full Moon on March 19, 2011? I was completely clouded out, but thankfully quite a few people have been kind enough to share their images. Here are a pictures sent in by readers, as well as via Twitter and Facebook. We’ve got images from all around the world, and even though the size of the Moon really wasn’t that much bigger than usual, (read here why not) it is great to see so many people getting out and looking up at the sky! Our lead image comes from Rasid Tugral in Ankara, Turkey.

This view of the March 19, 2011 full Moon was taken on West Kennet Avenue at the Avebury Stone Circle in Wiltshire. Credit: Pete Glastonbury
Perigee moonrise from Rothenfels, Germany. Credit: Daniel Fischer.

This one is from Daniel Fischer , who took a series of images of the Perigee moonrise sequence from Rothenfels, Germany.

Perigee Moon. Credit: Jason Major

Jason Major from Lights in the Dark created this image from a combination of two exposures from his Nikon D80 and 200mm telephoto.

The full super moon. Credit: Peter Riesett
The full moon is seen as it rises near the Lincoln Memorial, Saturday, March 19, 2011, in Washington. The full moon tonight is called a "Super Perigee Moon" since it is at it's closest to Earth in 2011. The last full moon so big and close to Earth occurred in March of 1993. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

moon from Tim Burgess on Vimeo.

Supermoon through the trees. Credit: Adam Schaefer
‘I took a few shots of the moon during last week and collected three of them to the same picture adding color lines to help the viewer to compare the size of the moon when it is nearing to its perigree status. All the shots have been taken in Laukaa, Central Finland with Sony Alpha700 dslr -camera equipped with 300mm minolta telephoto lens and 2x tele converter, hand held, manual focus. Unfortunately, the night 19.3.2011 was here cloudy, so I couldn't take photos then.’ Credit: Jukka Seppala, Teacher, nature photographer, Vihtavuori, Central Finland
Full Moon over Florida, sent in by cmurray6.
'I see the Supermoon a rising, I see trouble on the way ....' taken with an iPhone and a 3.5-inch scope: Credit: Bill Dillon
The Moon over the San Francisco, CA Bay Area. Credit: Diane Garber
The Moon and an old coal fired power station in Fremantle, Western Australia. Credit: Donna Oliver Rockingham, Western Australia

This gorgeous shot, was sent in by Donna Oliver from western Australia, take a bit of creative license. She says: “The goal was not to shoot the moon as such but to take advantage of the additional light. Obviously on a long exposure, the moon would not look this good, so I shot the moon, then added it. You can see star movement if you look carefully. I made the moon extra large as my interpretation of the Super Moon.”

'The Moon rising behind a couple of palm trees with cows grazing in the foreground. As you can see in the image, the bottom half of the moon has a different tint due to the earths atmosphere.' Credit: Tom Connor, Parrish, FL
SuperMoon taken from Alpha Ridge, March 19, 2011. Credit: James Willinghan
Moon over New Orleans. Credit: Peter Jansen
Moon over Cape Town, South Africa. Equipment: Canon 400D, Sigma 170-500 lens 'The Moon was definitely at its best. I did not try any new tricks as I wanted to compare the "supermoon" with my previous attempts. Phocussing was definitely much easier. My exposure was just right to show up the ejecta rays of the impact craters, Tycho and Copernicus as well.' Credit: Carol Botha
The Moon over Gulf Islands National Seashore near Navarre Beach, Florida. Credit: Mindi Meeks. Click the image to see more in a series taken by Mindi.
A 'side by side' comparison of 4 different shots taken over the period of 30 hours before 'SuperMoon'. It shows the progression of Moon in it's orbit until the closest point. Credit: Ramiz Qureshi, from Karachi, Pakistan.
This one is pretty creative: Saturdays "Supermoon" compared to the size of an apogee moon (2008). The 'big one' was taken yesterday (March 19, 2011). It is compared to the full moon fotographed at 20.4.2008. The same camera and optics was used (Canon EOS 40 D and Canon 100-400L IS @400mm). In 2008 moon distance was 406,000km, Saturday only 357,000km. Credit: Hans Schremmer Niederkrüchten Germany
The Moon over Teneriffa, Canary Islands. Camera: Atik 314 E, Astrotrac and 70/420 tube. Credit: Vesa K.
'I took this in my garden this evening about 9pm using my Tokina 500mm mirror lens. More detail than I was expecting to be honest,' said photographer Dave Green. Click the image to see his Flickr page.
'Supermoon was scared to shows its face to me.' Credit: Euan McIntosh
Full moon over Bassett, Virginia, 03/19/2011. Credit: Essie Hollandswort
Image of the Full Moon at perigee, taken from Tabuk, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, on March 19th., 2011 at 20.05UT using a Canon 30D camera set at 1/800sec and 1000ASA. The camera was attached to an 80mm refractor of 500mm focal length and a x3 teleconverter giving an effective focal length of 1,500mm. Credit: Colin Henshaw.
The full Moon over England. Credit: Jerry T Krzyzanowski. Click the image to see his gallery.
This Super Moon image was taken in Pointe-Claire,Canada. The Super Moon is right behind Mercier bridge, one of the key bridge that ties the Montreal island to the south shore. Credit: Jean-Guy Corbeil, Beaconsfield, Québec
Full Moon over Lake Ontario, beside Hamilton, Ontario (Canada). Credit: Nona Clark

Check out these two from Tavi Greiner on her blog, A Sky Full of Stars: In this one, the Moon rises over a boat on the Shallotte River, just a few hundred yards from the Atlantic Ocean.

And in this one, the Moon appears captured by the rigging, and even almost appears to have lit the ropes on fire.

The Supermoon Illusion

You’ve probably all seen it before, a huge Full Moon sitting on the horizon and you wonder why it looks much bigger than at other times? It isn’t, really; it’s an illusion.

And now, if you have heard about the close approach of the moon, or so called “Supermoon” on March 19th and are concerned about the disasters and mayem it may cause, there is no need to worry. And surely, when this so-called “Supermoon” occurs on March 19th — at its closest approach to Earth in two decades — people will indeed report that the Moon looks much bigger than normal. But it won’t really be much bigger in the sky at all. It’s all an illusion, a trick of the eye.

The moon does have an effect on the Earth with its gravity affecting ocean tides and even land to a lesser extent, but the moon on the 19th won’t interact with our planet any differently than any other time it’s been at its closest (also known as perigee).

If anything we may get slightly stronger tides, but nothing out of the ordinary.

The Moon orbits the Earth in an elliptical orbit, meaning that it is not always the same distance from the Earth. The closest the Moon ever gets to Earth (called perigee) is 364,000km, and the furthest is ever gets (Apogee) is around 406,000km (these figures vary, and in fact this Full Moon on March 19, 2011 will see a slightly closer approach of 357,000km).

So the percentage difference in distance between the average perigee and the average apogee is ~10%. That is, if the Full Moon occurs at perigee it can be up to 10% closer (and therefore larger) than if it occurred at apogee.

This is quite a significant difference, and so it is worth pointing out that the Moon does appear to be different sizes at different times throughout the year.

Moon at Perigee and Apogee Credit NASA

But that’s NOT what causes the Moon to look huge on the horizon. Such a measly 10% difference in size cannot account for the fact that people describe the Moon as “huge” when they see it low on the horizon.

What’s really causing the Moon to look huge on such occasions is the circuitry in your brain. It’s an optical illusion, so well known that it has its own name: the Moon Illusion.

If you measure the angular size of the Full Moon in the sky it varies between 36 arc minutes (0.6 degrees) at perigee, and 30 arc minutes (0.5 degrees) at apogee, but this difference will occur within a number of lunar orbits (months), not over the course of the night as the Moon rises. In fact if you measure the angular size of the Full Moon just after it rises, when it’s near the horizon, and then again hours later once it’s high in the sky, these two numbers are identical: it doesn’t change size at all.

So why does your brain think it has? There’s no clear consensus on this, but the two most reasonable explanations are as follows:

  1. When the Moon is low on the horizon there are lots of objects (hills, houses, trees etc) against which you can compare its size. When it’s high in the sky it’s there in isolation. This might create something akin to the Ebbinghaus Illusion, where identically sized objects appear to be different sizes when placed in different surroundings.

Ebbinghaus Illusion – the two orange circles are exactly the same size

  1. When seen against nearer foreground objects which we know to be far away from us, our brain thinks something like this: “wow, that Moon is even further than those trees, and they’re really far away. And despite how far away it is, it still looks pretty big. That must mean the Moon is huge!”.

These two factors combine to fool our brains into “seeing” a larger Moon when its near the horizon compared with when it’s overhead, even when our eyes – and our instruments – see it as exactly the same size.

Source: “Moon Illusion” on Dark Sky Diary Special thanks to Steve Owens

Just to be Clear: The Moon Did Not Cause the Earthquake in Japan

Apparrent size difference at Perigee and Apogee


We’re getting a lot of visitors to our site today, many searching for information about earthquakes, tsunamis, and the ‘SuperMoon’ phenomenon. Just to be clear, the Moon did not cause the earthquake in Japan. Several scientists have posted articles online today clarifying the topic, and all of them, in no uncertain terms, agree that the the upcoming perigee of the Moon — where it is closer than usual in its orbit to Earth — had nothing to do with the earthquake and ensuing tsunami. Tammy discussed this yesterday, but as we often do, we’ll also point you in the direction of an article by astronomer Phil Plait about this topic, and another by Ben Goldacre, who completely debunks an article that appeared in the Daily Mail about the possibility of a connection between the two events.

In addition, Dr. Jim Garvin, chief scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, has provided some answers to questions about the ‘supermoon’ phenomenon, below:

Question: What is the definition of a supermoon and why is it called that?

Garvin: ‘Supermoon’ is a situation when the moon is slightly closer to Earth in its orbit than on average, and this effect is most noticeable when it occurs at the same time as a full moon. So, the moon may seem bigger although the difference in its distance from Earth is only a few percent at such times.

It is called a supermoon because this is a very noticeable alignment that at first glance would seem to have an effect. The ‘super’ in supermoon is really just the appearance of being closer, but unless we were measuring the Earth-Moon distance by laser rangefinders (as we do to track the LRO [Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter] spacecraft in low lunar orbit and to watch the Earth-Moon distance over years), there is really no difference. The supermoon really attests to the wonderful new wealth of data NASA’s LRO mission has returned for the Moon, making several key science questions about our nearest neighbor all the more important.

Question: Are there any adverse effects on Earth because of the close proximity of the moon?

Garvin: The effects on Earth from a supermoon are minor, and according to the most detailed studies by terrestrial seismologists and volcanologists, the combination of the moon being at its closest to Earth in its orbit, and being in its ‘full moon’ configuration (relative to the Earth and sun), should not affect the internal energy balance of the Earth since there are lunar tides every day. The Earth has stored a tremendous amount of internal energy within its thin outer shell or crust, and the small differences in the tidal forces exerted by the moon (and sun) are not enough to fundamentally overcome the much larger forces within the planet due to convection (and other aspects of the internal energy balance that drives plate tectonics). Nonetheless, these supermoon times remind us of the effect of our ‘Africa-sized’ nearest neighbor on our lives, affecting ocean tides and contributing to many cultural aspects of our lives (as a visible aspect of how our planet is part of the solar system and space).

Lunar Farside Gets Highest Resolution Look Yet from LRO

The lunar farside as never seen before! LROC WAC orthographic projection centered at 180° longitude, 0° latitude. Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University.


The first time humans were able to catch a glimpse of the far side of the Moon was back in 1959 when the Soviet Luna 3 spacecraft sent back 29 grainy images taken during its successful loop around the Moon. “What a surprise – the farside was a different world, geologically,” said Mark Robinson, principal investigator for the camera on board the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. “Unlike the widespread maria on the nearside, basaltic volcanism was restricted to a relatively few, smaller regions on the farside, and the battered highlands crust dominated.”

Since then, just a handful of spacecraft have taken images of the far side of the Moon, but now, Robinson has had a hand in creating the most detailed view yet of the farside of the Moon. A mosaic of the far side released today is comprised of over 15,000 Wide Angle Camera images acquired between November 2009 and February 2011.

“This WAC mosaic provides the most complete look at the morphology of the farside to date, and will provide a valuable resource for the scientific community,” Robinson wrote on the LROC website. “And it’s simply a spectacular sight!”

And how!

Every month, as LRO circles the Moon, the WAC gathers images to provide nearly complete coverage of the Moon under unique lighting. This mosaic knits together images all with similar lighting. As an added bonus the orbit-to-orbit image overlap provides stereo coverage, and even more images will be released on March 15.

“As the mission progresses, and our knowledge of the lunar photometric function increases, improved and new mosaics will be released!” Robinson said. “Work your way around the Moon with these six orthographic projections constructed from WAC mosaics.”

Click here for more stunning, high resolution views of the Moon.

Source: LROC

When Will We Return to the Moon and Who Will it Be?

At the end of the movie “Apollo 13,” when the character of Jim Lovell says “I look up at the Moon and wonder, when will we be going back, and who will that be?” he probably didn’t have anything like the Google Lunar X PRIZE in mind. Similarly, when the GLXP was announced back in 2007, the founders had no idea that nearly 30 teams would be vying for the $30 million in incentive prizes to return to the Moon’s surface with a robotic craft.

Will Pomerantz, the former Senior Director of Space Prizes from the X PRIZE Foundation recalled an advisory committee meeting several years ago before the prize was announced. “We went around the room and asked everyone to estimate how many teams are going to compete in this,” Pomerantz said. “The answers ranged from zero on the low end to maybe a dozen or fifteen at the absolute max and that probably came either for myself or from Peter Diamandis, our founder. The fact that we have almost thirty blows us away, and we couldn’t be more thrilled.”

The X PRIZE Foundation recently announced the official roster of 29 teams that will attempt to send a robot to the Moon that travels at least 500 meters and transmit video, images, and data back to the Earth. The organization says this signifies a “new era of exploration’s diverse and participatory nature.”

The teams are headquartered all over the world — seventeen different headquarter nations — and most of the teams are actually multinationals, so team members are working in almost seventy different countries on every continent except for Antarctica.

“This is going to be the first time anything has been on the lunar surface since the final Soviet robotic mission in 1976,” Pomerantz said and those of us in the states really haven’t seen any data directly from the lunar surface since 1972, so we think that there’s at a ton to be learned scientifically, but also there’s a huge inspirational factor there for people to be able to see those images again.”

Of course, the robotic missions being designed are much less complicated and expensive than a human mission to the Moon.

Synergy Moon's spherical rover. Credit: GLXP

The concepts range from snake-like robots that slither along the surface to ball-shaped vehicles that can shift their mass internally move along the lunar surface to small robotic vehicles – “not too much bigger than the cell phone you’ve got your pocket,” Pomeranzt said – to rovers that look very much NASA- or ESA-designed vehicles. Others won’t rove at all, but reignite their engines to take off and fly to another location. This may allow them to explore totally different types of terrain that is totally inaccessible to a rover.

The landing sites that the various teams are shooting for differ as well. “Essentially everyone is going on the near side for obvious communication reasons,” Pomerantz said. “Almost everyone is going in a fairly low latitude and going in the equatorial zones.”

There are bonus prizes of several million additional dollars for teams that can go to particular sites, such the South Pole, where they could possibly confirm the findings at the LCROSS impact site, or if they go back to visit one of the Apollo landing sites or one of the sites of a non-human mission.

“I know that causes some concern for some people,” Pomerantz said. “People very rightly want to make sure that we are being respectful of those treasured historical sites. But I think it is important to recognize that no one values those sites more than the men and women around the world who are dedicating their careers to getting back to the surface of the Moon. They absolutely understand that those are our valuable treasures that need to be respected but they also understand that there’s an enormous amount to be gained from going back and respectfully revisiting the. There is some very interesting science that we can do by going back and seeing how the site and how those materials have changed over the past forty years.”

Why offer a prize to return to the Moon?

“We want to open the space frontier in the way similar to what we did it for the first X PRZE, the Ansari X PRIZE,” Pomerantz said. “We want to make space exploration and lunar exploration in particular radically cheaper. We think when you create a much lower price point, when you bring the price of missions down to a tenth to what it historically has been or even a hundredth of what it historically has been, you’re opening it up to a huge variety of new customers, new science communities, new industries that just can’t exist at the current price points.”

All the teams have to come up with their own funding.

“This is really a cash on delivery kind of model,” Pomerantz said. “But we don’t want to pay people to try. There are enough other people out there that are funding people to try new things. We want to reward people upon success. That means that no matter how crazy an idea might seem today, if it happens to be the best one, then we’ll reward it.”

Right now, the prize money is set to expire by the end of 2015, but the GLXP organizers are quite confident that at least one of the 29 teams will successfully reach the Moon before then. And obviously, NASA is confident, as well, as the space agency is offering a program called the Innovative Lunar Demonstration and Data Program, which is essentially $30 million dollars worth of data purchases from commercial efforts that reach the Moon.

“This is NASA saying for first time ever we are able to buy data about conducting lunar missions and about the Moon itself, rather than having to go out and pay for the acquisition of that data directly on the hopes that it will work,” Pomerantz said. “This is a great buy for NASA and I think they are getting a tremendous value and is a great way for teams to show their investors and supporters that, hey we’ve got a willing customer here. And NASA is not afraid of us; this isn’t an ‘us versus them competition.’ This is an area where our success is their success and vice versa.

Pomerantz is leaving the X PRIZE Foundation to begin work with Virgin Galactic. “I’ve loved every minute of being with the X PRIZE, but this was an opportunity just too good to pass up and I’m extremely excited about it even though I’m sad to be leaving X PRIZE.”

For more information about GLXP, see their website. See the complete roster of competing teams here.

Listen to an interview with Pomerantz on the 365 Days of Astronomy website.