Tag Archives: Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter

NASA’s stunning, 4K ‘Tour of the Moon’ is just as good as visiting the place — if not better

If you can’t seem to get a hold of a ticket to the Moon, fret not — NASA intends to help you see all the attractions without ever having to leave your chair.

In the fall of 2011, NASA released its original Tour of the Moon: a five-minute clip that takes viewers on a virtual tour of the Moon we know and love. The clip was created using data beamed back by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), which, at the time, had spent roughly two years hiking about and studying Earth’s satellite.

It’s been six years since then, and NASA hasn’t been wasting time. The Agency has recreated the Tour in blockbuster-worthy 4k, using the same camera path, but drawing on the much-expanded pool of knowledge the LRO gathered for us since. It feels like an odd (but awesome) crossover between a vacation promo and a science documentary, moving between regular views and colorful, digitally-enhanced footage that shows off some the moon’s fascinating geologic features — all set to a symphonic soundtrack that bellows just under the voice-over.

Without further ado, here it is:

The constantly-shadowed areas near the poles pose obvious difficulty for photographers trying to capture a pic — so NASA measured the areas using altimetry. Landing sites closer to the equator, where there’s light aplenty, were imaged in resolutions as high as 10 inches / 25 centimeters per pixel.

The new tour also takes a look at the mineral composition of the Aristarchus plateau, follows evidence of surface water ice in some areas near the south pole, and a glimpse at the Orientale basin’s gravitational profile.

Interview with Dr. Thomas Watters, from the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum

We recently got the chance to talk to Dr. Thomas Watters from the National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution. Dr. Watters is a Co-Investigator on the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera, and discussing lunar tectonics with him was highly insightful:

ZME: Your background is in geology and tectonics, how was the transition to planetary sciences? How is studying geology on extraterrestrial bodies different?

Thomas Watters: Although my education was in traditional terrestrial geology and tectonics, I was always interested in the Moon and the terrestrial planets. With terrestrial geology, you have the great advantage of field work. With planetary studies, you’re of course limited to remote sensing data. However, field study of analog landforms is very important.

Artistic representation of the LRO. Image via Wikipedia.

ZME: It just seems like astro-geology (I’m not really sure if that’s the proper name) has developed so much in recent years. What were the most exciting findings in the field, in your opinion?

TW: We are really privileged to live in this era of exploration of the solar system! I’ve also had the good fortune to be on the science teams of planetary missions to the Moon, Mercury, and Mars. What has surprised me is that in spite of the similarities, we’ve discovered that every object in the solar system is unique in its own way.

ZME: About your recent research about the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, the Moon has no proper tectonic activity [edit: I’m wrong], but there are still some tectonic features. Do you suspect that Earth’s gravity actually caused the fault scarps during the Moon’s formation, or did it simply activate them? What other features could Earth’s gravity cause on the Moon?

TW: One of the exciting outcomes of the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter mission has been the discovery that the Moon is still a dynamic world. We’ve found evidence of young volcanic features and well as the very young faults. The faults are so young that they are very likely still active today. So our view of the Moon as a body that has not been geologically active for billions of years has completely changed. Our modeling suggests that Earth’s tidal forces have contributed to the formation of the faults. Tidal stresses alone would not be expected to form the faults (tidal stresses are too small), but when combined with stresses from global contraction due to cooling of the Moon’s still hot interior tidal stresses have influenced the orientations of the faults.

ZME: I know that the discovery of moonquakes was quite a surprise, because the Moon has no tectonics. Do we know what causes them? Could it be the same gravitational pull?

TW: Actually the Apollo seismic network while it was operating recorded thousands of moonquakes. Only about 30 quakes were determined to be shallow (near surface). These shallow moonquakes could be due to slip events on the young faults. Tidal forces from Earth’s gravitational pull may not have been large enough to cause the shallow moonquakes, but the combination of tidal stress and stresses from global contraction particularly at apogee (when the Earth-Moon distance is greatest) could be responsible for many of these quakes.

ZME: What is the current progress for the LRO mission? Have you gone through most of the data, or is there still more to analyze? Do you expect more exciting findings in the future?

TW: The LRO mission is in its second extended mission and we will be proposing to NASA for a third extended mission. We have only imaged about three-quarters of the lunar surface with the high resolution Narrow Angle Camera, so we have yet to map the entire population of young faults. During the next extended mission, we will be looking for visual evidence of current activity on the young faults.

ZME: Some plans were recently announced by Russia and the EU for establishing a permanent settlement on the Moon. What do you think about this perspective?

TW: A permanent base on the Moon is a logical first step to reaching the goal of human exploration of Mars. It would be good to avoid locating a lunar base close to one of the young faults.

ZME: In the end, what do you think is the future for astrogeology/geophysics? How well can we know the geology of other celestial body?

TW: Continued planetary exploration and investigation is not only critically important to understanding our solar system, it is critical to understanding the emerging population of extrasolar planets.

Thank you so much for taking the time, and good luck in your future endeavors!

Geopicture of the Week: Brilliant new high-resolution maps of the Moon released

If you’ve ever wanted to plan a hiking trip on the Moon, now you have the perfect opportunity: a gorgeous pair of new lunar maps – the Image Mosaic and Topographic Maps of the Moon – is now available online for everyone to see and download.

The full Image Map of the Moon showing an image mosaic created from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Wide Angle Camera aboard the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft. Photo Credit: USGS/NASA/ASU

This figure is a close-up of the Image Map of the Moon showing the Apollo landing sites and some other successful landed missions near them. Copernicus crater, a 96 km diameter crater, is on the left. The figure is centered at about 11° east longitude and +9° latitude. Photo Credit: USGS/NASA/ASU

To me, it’s mind blowing that we have so high quality maps of the Moon – it’s the perfect thing to print and put up on your wall, I’ll definitely do one too (as soon as we fix the printer, that is). They were constructed using images and topographic (elevation) data from NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), which has been orbiting the Moon since 2009. The first map is an image mosaic based on data from the Wide Angle Camera (WAC), a camera onboard the LRO.

“Images from the LRO Camera have greatly advanced our knowledge of the Moon,” said Dr. Mark Robinson, the principal investigator for the LRO Camera and professor at Arizona State University. “High resolution images have revealed very young lunar volcanoes ten to 100 million years old, contrary to conventional wisdom which suggests that lunar volcanism ceased between one and two billion years ago.”

The second map is based on topographic data from the Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter (LOLA), another instrument onboard the LRO.

The full Topographic Map of the Moon showing a derived colorized shaded relief map from the Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter aboard the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft. Photo Credit: USGS/NASA/ASU

“The LOLA data are a foundational dataset to be used in multiple types of studies for years to come,” said Dr. Erwan Mazarico, a co-investigator for the LOLA instrument. “The exceptional quality of the topographic map is a direct result of the large amount of data LOLA has collected over several years.”

The map has been colorized and indicates the elevation of different areas of the Moon’s surface, with the blue shades indicating low elevation areas, white indicating moderate elevation areas, and the gray to black shades indicating high elevation areas.

Interestingly enough, the highest point on the Moon is 6,358 feet higher than the summit of Mt. Everest, the highest point on Earth. Viewers can find the highest point on the map, which is 35,387 feet above the Moon’s average elevation, near the crater Engel’gradt.

“One of the last NASA published global maps of the Moon was NASA’s 1979 Lunar Chart (LPC-1), and this new public release product updates the Lunar ChartQ in several important ways,” said Brent Archinal, a scientist at the USGS Astrogeology Science Center.


NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter i

Helium presence confirmed on the Moon’s thin atmosphere

According to recent findings as a result of observations from NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), it seems like the moon’s pale atmosphere contains helium, a fact in question for some forty years since the first hints were discovered on the lunar surface during the Apollo missions.

NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter i

NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. (c) NASA

The moon is often considered not to have an atmosphere, and for practical reasons Earth’s satellite is many times regarded as being surrounded in an envelope of vacuum. However, scientists frequently refer to what’s called the “lunar atmosphere” – a thin, very fragile layer of gaseous atomic and molecular particles. However, this is atmosphere is so tiny, that’s often negligible. How tiny? It’s less than one hundred trillionth of Earth’s atmospheric density at sea level.

This means that it’s surface offers practically zero protection against solar radiation exposure and meteors can simply hit the moon without encountering any resistance. Still, tiny as it is, the moon has an atmosphere, and scientists have been studying it for a very long time.

The latest findings from the LRO is set to confirm the very first evidence of the presence of Helium in the moon’s atmosphere by the Lunar Atmosphere Composition Experiment (LACE), which was deployed by moonwalking Apollo 17 astronauts in 1972. The team of researchers involved the observations,  used the spectrometer aboard the orbiter to examine the far ultraviolet emissions visible in the atmosphere, detecting helium over a period spanning more than 50 orbits. Various techniques were used to measure the Helium levels on the moon’s surface in order to rule out possible interplanetary readings.

How does Helium get on moon in first place?

“The question now becomes, does the helium originate from inside the moon — for example, due to radioactive decay in rocks — or from an exterior source, such as the solar wind?” Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo., said in a statement. Stern is principal investigator of LRO’s Lyman Alpha Mapping Project spectrometer, or LAMP.

Radioactive decay within the crust and mantle leads to a reaction which releases helium and radon. However, the major proportion of helium on the moon’s surface is most likely due to solar wind and light. Also, micrometeorite bombardment is also considered a factor.

“If we find the solar wind is responsible, that will teach us a lot about how the same process works in other airless bodies,” Stern said.

The initial 1972 experiments  showed an increase in helium abundance as night progressed. Scientists believe this is due to the phenomenon of atmospheric cooling which concentrates atoms at lower altitudes. Most likely, these findings will be followed up by NASA scientists.

The Apollo 16 mission flag, still in place to this day, as seen in this photo captured by the LRO. (c) NASA

Apollo mission flags still in place on the moon after 40 years

Just last week, man’s first step on the moon turned 43 years. Uncoincidently, maybe, NASA announced recently that its Lunar Reconaissance Orbiter (LRO) has captured conclusive images to show that almost all American flags hung by astronauts on the moon are still in their rightful place, undisturbed. Maybe only withered.

The Apollo 16 mission flag, still in place to this day, as seen in this photo captured by the LRO. (c) NASA

The Apollo 16 mission flag, still in place to this day, as seen in this photo captured by the LRO. (c) NASA

The images aren’t very clear, and present flags are really small in depiction. A high-res picture of the flags well in place would’ve shattered any doubt that has risen in past years concerning the survival of Apollo landing banners. Alas, these latest pics from LRO, poor quality albeit, all but suffice, since it clearly shows a shadow. By superimposing the flag sites with photos taken by the spacecraft hovering around the moon at different times of the day, one can clearly see shadows circling the points where the flags are thought to be. Yup, they’re planted alright, all but the very first flag, planted by Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong during mankind’s maiden voyage to the moon. Apparently, the flag was knocked over by engine exhaust as Apollo 11 lifted off.

However, the rest of flags planted during the other six manned Apollo missions are well in place. Rather incredible considering the banners were made out of nylon and were subjected to decades of harsh conditions.

“Intuitively, experts mostly think it highly unlikely the Apollo flags could have endured the 42 years of exposure to vacuum, about 500 temperature swings from 242 F during the day to -280 F during the night, micrometeorites, radiation and ultraviolet light, some thinking the flags have all but disintegrated under such an assault of the environment,” James Fincannon, of the NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland.

LRO launched in June 2009, and first captured close-up images of the Apollo landing sites in July of that year. The $504 million car-size spacecraft is currently on an extended mission through at least September 2012.

Prof Mark Robinson, the chief scientist for the spacecraft’s camera instrument, LROC, said in a blog entry: “From the LROC images it is now certain that the American flags are still standing and casting shadows at all of the sites, except Apollo 11.”

The Arizona State University scientist added: “The most convincing way to see that the flags are still there, is to view a time series of LROC images taken at different times of day, and watch the shadow circle the flag.”

“Personally I was a bit surprised that the flags survived the harsh ultraviolet light and temperatures of the lunar surface, but they did. What they look like is another question (badly faded?)”