First Views from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter

The photographs are mysterious, brooding, dark. They show dimples and ripples, vast pockets of black, and unearthly rills where sunlight glistens. There are craters within craters within craters. These are among the first rewards of America’s return to the moon, images radioed back from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.

[Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University. A portion of one of the photos. The lines that appear here are artifacts of the photo’s compression and disappear when you click on the image.]

LRO is one of two probes launched together June 18 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida aboard an Atlas V rocket. The other component is the Lunar CRater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS), which will search for water resources. LCROSS will allow the upper stage of the Atlas to slam into the moon so it can take images of the dust cloud, readings that will be analyzed for signs of water; shortly afterward LCROSS itself will impact.

The LRO went into lunar orbit on June 23 and its two cameras were activated a week later, but they didn’t immediately start snapping. Taking extremely high-resolution views, capable of seeing rocks only a yard across, they operated from July 3 until July 5. Besides the LRO’s helping to compile a detailed moon atlas, engineers plan to direct it to take views of Apollo landing sites, where astronauts walked on the moon in the late 1960s and early ’70s.

I will be surprised if Apollo 11’s lander didn’t just happen to show up in LRO images on July 20, the 40th anniversary of Neil Armstrong’s small step/giant leap.

A “movie”, actually an image showing an LRO view as it was recorded line by line while the satellite glided above the surface, is posted here:

CLICK on the video titled “Scanning Towards the Lunar North Pole”.

Presently the cameras are switched off while the probe is heated to drive off some moisture. According to a NASA press release, this “bakeout” will ensure the images are of the best quality for the rest of the project, which includes surveying the moon and checking out spots for future astronaut landings.

The principal investigator in charge of the cameras, Mark Robinson of Arizona State University, Tempe, said the first views were taken along the moon’s terminator, the line separating lunar day and night. The crew wasn’t sure how these would turn out, he said.

“Because of the deep shadowing, subtle topography is exaggerated, suggesting a craggy and inhospitable surface. In reality, the area is similar to the region where the Apollo 16 astronauts safely explored in 1972. While these are magnificent in their own right, the main message is that LROC is nearly ready to begin its mission,” NASA quotes Robinson. (The C in LROC stands for Camera; while the spaceship carries three cameras, for some reason they are called the LROC.)

While we are awaiting the end of the bakeout and the resumption of photography, Arizona State University has uploaded the remarkable first 15 view onto the Internet, at this site: CLICK.

Not only can we enjoy the overall pictures, but when a viewer clicks on one, the “Zoomify” technology comes into play and the scale increases dramatically. It’s like swooping toward the surface.

You can watch as a moonscape like wrinkled elephant hide comes closer. In some photos, bright spikes — peaks or big rocks — blaze like flames in the light and cast long shadows across the battered surface. And the likelihood of America actually returning to the moon as planned seems a lot more concrete as you look at these stunning views.

It’s really happening, isn’t it? We’re really going back.

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