The moon never gets old. There’s always something new to see with your eyeball, in a small telescope or vicariously via the unblinking gaze of orbiting lunar satellites.
Several nights ago I watched the first quarter moon skid down to the horizon until it turned orange as a pumpkin. All the while, unseen to my eye, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) satellite was busy taking detailed images of its ancient surface.
NASA released brand new pictures recently of the Apollo 12, 14 and 17 lunar landing sites. They show fabulous detail compared to the first generation of images widely-published on the Web a year or so ago. A month ago, mission controllers adjusted LRO’s orbit so that its lowest point over the moon’s surface was only 13 miles high compared to its typical 31-mile high orbit. That’s just 68,640 feet or about half again the 40,000 feet cruising altitude of a transcontinental jet flight.
Through LRO’s eyes we see the dual, parallel tracks of the lunar rover, the meandering footpath created by the astronauts as they set out experiments or collected rocks and even the shape of the lunar module descent stages. The experiments were part of the Apollo Lunar Surface Experiments Package (ALSEP) deployed to monitor the moon’s environment and interior and a key part of every Apollo mission. Data gleaned provided the first insights into the moon’s internal structure, measurements of the lunar surface pressure and the composition of its atmosphere.
The orbiter snapped pictures for 28 days from low orbit to provide complete coverage of the moon. This week it returns to the original 31-mile high mapping orbit. Expect to see more “intimate” photos of the moon released in the coming weeks.
When you’re out tonight moongazing or otherwise enjoying the lantern of the night, take a closer look and try to picture the three Apollo landing sites on the moon’s sunlit face. Imagine what it must be like to be one of the dozen astronauts who walked on the moon and left the tracks we now see in photographs. What do they think when they’re out for a stroll with the dog? When most of us go on a long journey and return, the place we visited is hidden until we return another day. It must be a tease to the astronauts, who can stare across a gap of 240,000 miles any clear night the moon’s out. Right before their eyes is the place where they passed a few precious days on an alien world.