Do the moonwalk with the Apollo astronauts

The setting first quarter moon looks like a sunset in this photo taken earlier in the week. What gives it away as a nighttime shot are the numerous stars and even a piece of the Milky Way (upper left). Details: 24mm lens at f/2.8, ISO 800 and 20-second exposure. Photo: Bob King

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.

Humans last left footprints on the moon during the Apollo 17 mission. This photo shows the module descent stage, footpaths, experiments and lunar rover tire tracks. Astronauts Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt touched down at this spot on December 11, 1972. Click photo for a big version. Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/ASU

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 scene from 13 miles above the Apollo 12 landing site. Astronauts Charles Conrad and Alan Bean landed there on November 19, 1969. Click photo to enlarge. Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/ASU

The paths left by astronauts Alan Shepard and Edgar Mitchell on both Apollo 14 moon walks are visible in this image. (At the end of the second moon walk, Shepard famously hit two golf balls.) The descent stage of the lunar module Antares is also visible. Click to enlarge. Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/ASU

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.

The moon is shown for tonight with the three Apollo landing sites marked. Created with Stellarium

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.

21 thoughts on “Do the moonwalk with the Apollo astronauts

  1. Bob, do you know why Apollo 12 and 14 landed so near each other? With the whole moon to explore, why did NASA choose two side-by-side locations?

    • Carol, I only know that the Apollo 12 mission was to test out the ability to achieve a pinpoint landing on the moon and study what were believed to be younger rocks at that location as determined from studies from Earth. Apollo 14 landed in the Fra Mauro region, where the aborted Apollo 13 would have landed. Scientists were hoping to find impact debris from the formation of one of the younger lunar basins nearby called Mare Imbrium. Based on the rocks brought back, they were able to date its origin.

      • OK, thanks for that. It’s a pity, though, that none of the landings were in one of the larger, interesting craters, such as Copernicus or Plato.

          • OK, I was wondering where to post this, but here goes – I was reading on another site about that strange report from Greenland last January that spoke of the sun apparently rising two days earlier, and it reminded me that I had never heard any satisfactory explanation back then when it was news. Are you familiar with the story? I could only find one source at the time, but it seems to have spread around quite quickly. Obviously, any disruption in the earth’s orbit would have been noticed all over the world, not just in the Arctic, so it stands to reason that nothing ‘physical’ happened. Did you yourself come across any possible explanation for the phenomenon?

          • Carol — I’ve heard this story. Because of their northerly location, the residents of a town in eastern Greenland normally see the first sunrise of the year on Jan. 13. This year however they saw it two days early on the 11th. While that’s a small difference, it’s curious and needs explaining. The best hypothesis I’ve heard is that global warming may have melted the ice cap down to a level where the residents now see closer down to the horizon. The lower you can see to the horizon, the earlier the sun would appear.

          • Bob, there’s no ‘Reply’ option below your response to my question about the sun rising early in Greenland, so I’ll reply here.

            I had indeed heard that explanation about the glaciers melting, but that wasn’t an option, it seemed. The ice sheets are to the east of the town, not the south, where the sun would have risen at the time, so we have to find another explanation!

          • I’ve also heard — as you probably have — that the atmosphere might have been thicker, perhaps with haze, that day and that might have refracted the sun more strongly, causing it to appear to rise earlier. Somehow this is hard for me to believe, but perhaps it’s possible. I can’t find a lot of facts. I’d want to know: did the same person(s) make the observation this year as the last few years? Did each observer determine the moment of sunrise the same way? In other words, did they use the top of the sun’s disk as the moment of sunrise or wait until the full disk cleared the horizon? Could the observers have seen a wisp of sun in say, the form of the green flash, instead of the top of the disk? Could any tides have affected water levels?

  2. Carol and Bob,

    If the remainder of the Apollo J missions were to be flown, many speculate that Apollo 18 would have landed at Gassendi crater, 19 would have landed at Copernicus Crater, and 20 at Tycho Crater, which would have been immensely challenging and dangerous due to the extremely treacherous mountain ranges, fuel expenditure due to unorthodox orbit and RCS thrusting, and the terrain itself. . . . but NOT as dangerous or ambitious as what Dr. Harrison (Jack) Schmitt proposed for Apollo 17! Rather than Taurus-Littrow, he proposed sending Apollo 17 to the FAR SIDE of the moon, at Tsiolkovskiy Crater, a lava filled crater that many lunar geologists were foaming at the teeth over. In the light of Apollo 13 near disaster, NASA (and Congress) lobbied for a less aggresive landing. Shouldit have occoured though, it would have involved the launching of two communications satellites on the far side of the moon, just so that NASA, the LM and the Command Module would have had constant communication rather than a total comm blackout. His proposal was soundly defeated by NASA brass. Part of that reason, was that it would have expended capital already being used for the post Apollo projects, also know as the Apollo Applications Program – which eventually became Skylab and later the last Apollo launch, the Apollo-Soyuz Test Program. Also, after the success of Apollo 15, NASA decided to divert much of its attention (and money) on developing the STS, the Shuttle Transportation System or Space Shuttle.

    • Thank you Colonel for your information and insight. Safety has always been a key concern whether on manned or unmanned landings — I’m thinking of the Mars rovers. You want to the mission to succeed, so you calculate your risks carefully. The most thrilling Apollo landing site in my opinion was Apollo 15 at Hadley Rill at the foot of the Apennines. I like the rugged moonscapes visible from the lander.

  3. On the Greenland thing. . .

    It occurs to me that it could have been a variant on the “Morgana’s Castle” illusion. This usually happens over ice fields where a trapped layer of cold air refracts the line of sight back to the ground. Someone who sees a “Morgana’s Castle” sees a wall or column of ice, sometimes resembling a mountain upside down. It can shimmer, or be surrounded by mist in a rather dreamlike way. As the person approaches it, it appears to sink into the ground. In reality, it is like a mirage upside down. The refracting layer is above your head, instead of at your feet, so it gives the impression of a large object where something isn’t, instead of the impression of a pool of water.

    If such a layer were out over the ocean, it could have given the viewer literally a look over the horizon.

    • I hadn’t considered that as a possibility Bruce. It’s a great suggestion, since this form of superior mirage can lift into view objects beyond the horizon. They happen over large bodies of water as well. I’ve seen some excellent superior mirages here in Duluth over — what else — Lake Superior. Thanks!

      • There are also accounts of people in southern Ontario seeing mirages of Cleveland over Lake Erie, and of Clevelanders seeing Southern Ontario. Must be quite a shock to see!

  4. hi there from BC
    about the Greenland early sunrise, i read that because of the melt of the ice cap, the land mass actually rises up so perhaps it is a side effect to slip out of the shadow a little bit earlier, then again perhaps they got lucky with a clear sky and saw the sun earlier.
    on the Apollo subject, i still think Dr Harrison Schmitt was the most enthusiastic moonwalker. his numerous spills got my heart skipping a beat or two at the time and i was only 12 ! sure glad the PLSS didn’t tear with such acrobatics in the abrasive dust.
    A close second in my opinion was the crew of Apollo 14 who had to drag that backwards wheelbarrow up the slope of Fra Mauro, what a work out ! Never heard comments from Shepard or Roosa about that part of the second EVA as everybody wanted to hear more about the golf experiment ;)
    Also, how long before the new pics from LRO are denounced as “photoshopped” by the “denyers” ? according to them, we’re all part of the big conspiracy, doubt that any evidence will ever change their minds, which is pretty sad.
    have a great day everyone.

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