NASA spacecraft puts moon in new focus

Images from Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter show fine details of lunar surface

View the video

OVER THE MOON Maps show elevation data for the moon from a 2005 survey (left) compared with new data from NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (right). Goddard Space Flight Center Science Visualization Studio/NASA

After buzzing around the moon for two years, NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has beamed more than 192 terabytes of data back to its home planet — more than all the printed information contained in the U.S. Library of Congress, says project scientist Richard Vondrak of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

Among those data are 4 billion measurements made by the orbiter’s laser altimeter, which allowed scientists to construct a detailed elevation map of the moon’s pockmarked surface. An animation of the moon’s rotation shows the orbiter’s data compared with maps made in 2005 by the U.S. Geological Survey’s Unified Lunar Control Network. Scientists presented the animation during a conference held on June 21. “We go from a relatively fuzzy moon that kind of looks out of focus, to one that’s sharp and very well-defined,” says NASA’s Michael Wargo, chief lunar scientist for exploration.

Flying approximately 50 kilometers above the cratered world, the 1,900-kilogram spacecraft has helped illuminate Earth’s nearest celestial neighbor by studying its features, temperature, composition and elusive dark side. Using the data sent back home, scientists have identified locations likely to hold frozen water ice — shaded regions that never see sunlight and which are among the coldest places in the solar system — as well as sunnier spots that could one day host a solar-powered moon base.

Scientists anticipate the mission continuing through at least September 2012.

OVER THE MOON from Science News on Vimeo.

NASA scientists have released a new animation of the moon, showing off the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter’s more detailed data compared with a 2005 survey.
Credit: Goddard Space Flight Center Science Visualization Studio/NASA

More Stories from Science News on Space