The highest-resolution images ever taken of three moon landing sites, released today by NASA, show remarkable detail of the lunar explorations of Apollo 12, 14 and 17. With a resolution of just 25 centimeters – about a foot – per pixel, the images (see below) show astronaut tracks in the moon dust, the final resting place of a lunar rover, and the remains of various surface experiments.
Obtained by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, the images are so detailed that a scientist scrutinizing them could even make out two backpacks dumped by the last two astronauts to walk on the moon, Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt, in December 1972 before they left the moon during Apollo 17.
“They were unceremoniously thrown out on the surface and they’re still sitting there,” said Mark Robinson, the principal investigator for the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter camera, of the two “portable life support systems” that appear as bright spots near the mission’s lunar lander. “It’s really pretty amazing you can resolve all this much better than we could in our previous images,” he added during a NASA teleconference.
Images of the Apollo 17 site show east-west tracks churned up by the lunar rover that Cernan and Schmitt drove. They parked the rover east of the landing module, where an automated camera filmed a famous video of the astronauts blasting off for home:
“If you squint really hard, you can see the seats and see the wheels turned to the left,” Robinson said of the rover. The astronauts on a previous mission, Apollo 12, had no rover, so they trudged and bounded some 1,300 meters, looping to the west from their lander around Head Crater before turning south to explore two other craters. Their tracks then show them heading east to a NASA craft, Surveyor 3, which had arrived on the moon in 1967 to spot good landing sites. The astronauts collected some of Surveyor 3’s gear before making their way back to their lander.
Here’s Apollo 17’s landing site. Click here for full image:
Robinson said he looked for the American flags planted by the astronauts, but saw no sign of them beyond some trampling in the dust. The harsh ultraviolet radiation and extreme heat and cold cycles of lunar day and night probably destroyed the nylon flags, Robinson said.
Here’s Apollo 12’s landing site. Click here for full image:
He added that the images have scientific value, as the brightness of the Apollo detritus provides clues as to how much moon dust moves around on the airless surface. The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter took the photos from as low as 22 kilometers above the surface and are the most detailed Apollo images NASA will obtain from the mission.
The moon probe was launched in 2009 to explore possible landing sites for NASA’s Constellation program, which President George W. Bush initiated to return Americans to the moon. In 2010, President Obama scuttled the program, and NASA currently has no plans to go back to the moon. In the wake of the retirement of the space shuttle, the images are a bittersweet reminder of an era of larger American space ambitions. “We all like to obsess and look at Apollo landing site images because it’s fun,” Robinson said. “People used to be able to go to the moon and explore the moon. Hopefully in the future we’ll do that again.”
Here’s Apollo 14’s landing site. Click here for full image: