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A new map shows the moon as it’s never been seen

50 years of data from old landings and satellite images helped create a surface blueprint.

A portion of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Unified Geologic Map of the Moon, which was released in April 2020. The map is based on data from the Apollo moon landings in the 1960s and ’70s and satellite images. (U.S. Geological Survey)

In the year 2024, NASA plans to send astronauts 239,000 miles to the moon. It will be the first time since 1972 that humans have touched down on Earth’s only natural satellite. The mission will also include the first woman to travel to the moon.

NASA will have a cool new tool to help it with this mission: the Unified Geologic Map of the Moon. This is a topographical map — that is, it shows physical features, such as the height of mountains and the depth of valleys. The United States Geological Survey (USGS) calls it the “definitive blueprint of the moon’s surface geology.”

The USGS, which released the map in April, makes a lot of maps of Earth. It is also the “only institution in the world that creates standardized maps for surfaces that are not on Earth,” says USGS research geologist James Skinner. That includes Mars and other planets and moons in our solar system.

The new moon map took more than 50 years to make. It started with six original maps collected from the Apollo missions to the moon in the 1960s and ’70s. The maps did a good job of showing the basic layout of the moon.

New technology has made it possible to create an updated map and “turn it into information scientists can use,” says Skinner.

First, the old Apollo maps were digitized by scanning them into computers. Then new data was collected by cameras attached to orbiting satellites. One camera took wide-angle pictures of the moon. The other made topographical images by shooting laser beams at the moon’s surface. Then all those images were laid on top of the map scans.

With the images pieced together, we can see the moon’s layers and tell the difference between its two terrains.

There are ancient highlands, which, Skinner says, were made when asteroids and meteorites crashed into the moon. They show up on the map in bright yellow. There are low-lying lava plains formed when volcanoes erupted 10 million to 1 billion years ago. These show up as warm reds and pinks.

Skinner says picking colors for maps merges science, technology and art. When it’s done well, it allows even nonscientists to easily understand what they’re seeing.

Skinner says that the map is still not detailed enough to let NASA scientists zoom in close enough to decide whether a particular spot would make a good landing site or whether the surrounding rocks could be used as a berm that could protect astronauts.

It’s a start. “This will allow us to decide where we want to focus our next studies, maybe 20 places we’d like to [further] define,” Skinner says. Those “will allow us to figure out what resources need to be on the moon so that robots and people can survive. Everything can be improved upon.”

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