Historic Apollo landing sites imaged by new lunar orbiter
BY CRAIG COVAULT
Posted: July 17, 2009
The NASA Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) spacecraft has transmitted the first images in 40 years of the Apollo 11 lunar lander.
The LRO spacecraft also imaged four other Apollo sites showing Grumman lunar module descent stages, and in one case, a trail of astronaut footprints on the Moon.
In addition to Apollo 11, the Apollo 14, 15, 16 and 17 sites were imaged. LRO has not yet flown over the Apollo 12 landing site when lighting was suitable for imagery, but the spacecraft will be commanded to obtain imagery of the Apollo 12 site by late July or early August.
All of the images were taken by the Arizona State University Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROCC). Once the spacecraft is placed into its final 31 mi. circular mapping orbit, LROC images of the Apollo sites will have two to three times greater resolution than the images shown here.
The spacecraft's current elliptical 23 x 125 mi. orbit resulted in image resolutions that were slightly different for each site, but all around four feet per pixel.
The image of the Apollo 14 landing site (below) , however, had a particularly good lighting condition that allowed visibility of additional details.
Because the deck of the lunar module 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 in size.
The images were taken between July 11-15 . They were processed with unusual speed then released as part of NASA commemoration of the first manned lunar landing by Apollo 11 on July 20, 1969 that carried astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin (Buzz) Aldrin to the surface of the moon (image below).
The Apollo 15 landing site (below) was near Hadley Rill, a collapsed lava tube deeper than the grand canyon. The rill is out of view to the east.
The Apollo 16 site (below) in April, 1972 was in the Descartes highlands.
On Apollo 17, the final manned mission to the moon in 1972, astronauts Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt explored the Taurus-Littrow region for almost three days. The descent stage of their lunar module Challenger is visible near Camelot crater (below).
The lunar module descent stages (see image below) were quite large carrying the descent engine and its propellant tanks, along with science packages and, on the last three flights, the lunar rover cars.
The separation of the Apollo 17 ascent stage from the descent stage (below) was imaged by the television on the crew's lunar rover car parked about 100 ft. away.
The location of the Apollo landing sites is shown (below) on a globe of the moon. The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter transmitted its images to antennas at White Sands N. M. which then relayed them to the Goddard Space Flight Center, Md. Which controls the spacecraft.
"These are only our first glimpse, from now on the images will only get better," says Mike Wargo, the LRO project scientist at NASA Headquarters.
The spacecraft will also attempt to image the Soviet Lunakhod rovers, each about the size of a Volkswagen beetle car.
The Apollo pictures provide a reminder of past NASA exploration, while LRO's primary focus is on paving the way for the future. By returning detailed lunar data, the mission will help NASA identify safe landing sites for future explorers, locate potential resources, describe the moon's radiation environment and demonstrate new technologies. "Not only do these images reveal the great accomplishments of Apollo, they also show us that lunar exploration continues," said LRO project scientist Richard Vondrak at Goddard. "They demonstrate how LRO will be used to identify the best destinations for the next journeys to the moon."