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A New Face On The Moon

Video Courtesy of NASA/Goddard

The NASA Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) spacecraft, which in late June marked three years in lunar polar orbit,  is continuing to build on its list of major discoveries that is putting a new face on the Moon.

The two ton $500 million Goddard Space Flight Center spacecraft discovered early on that the Moon remains geologically active with its crust still shrinking and stretching in different places from remnant subsurface heat from its creation 4.5 billion years ago.

The LRO data has not found any new information to challenge the most popular theory on lunar creation. That theory is that the Moon’s material was once part of the Earth,  but blasted into orbit by Earth’s collision with a Mars sized object when both bodies were molten 4.5 billion years ago.

Giant South Polar Aitken Basin color coded blue from this LRO laser radar image mosaic shows perhaps the oldest large impact crater on the Moon. A giant asteroid or small planetoid struck this spot on the Moon only a few million years after its formation 4.5 billion years ago. Image Credit: NASA/Goddard

Some of LRO’s most notable achievements are:

—Transmitted data indicating the Moon has at least 6.6 billion tons of water ice. The ice could be used by future explorers for drinking water, radiation shielding or oxygen for breathing and liquid hydrogen for rocket propellant when combined with liquid oxygen.

LRO’s own sensor suite combined with the sensors on the LCROSS Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite,  that flew into the plume blasted up by LRO’s  Centaur  stage as it hit the Moon,  have provided much of this water ice data. But additional ice information has continued to flow in from LRO’s radiometer and other sensors.

—–Found and mapped very specific locations on the Moon where major deposits of the important mineral Lunar Ilmenite can be found. It is a titanium-iron oxide mineral highly enriched in magnesium that scientists believe would be critical in the development of any base on the Moon. Oxygen can be easily extracted from Lunar Ilmenite and it would also be used to fashion building materials for permanent structures. The Earthly version of Ilmenite is mined in 13 countries.

LRO has also discovered titanium fields on the Moon with concentrations of titanium in lunar ore 10 times higher than on Earth.  When studying LRO images scientists noticed that areas of lunar seas are reddish and some are blue. The color variations point at concentrations of titanium and iron.

—Found the Moon’s North Polar Region is home to the single coldest place in the entire solar system at -415 degrees Fahrenheit (-248 Celsius).

——Produced  unprecedented new maps for new human and robotic landing sites and for pinpointing the Moon’s diverse geologic features and resources.  The spacecraft is returning so much high resolution data that the LRO team believes that it could map much of the lunar surface at a resolution of 19.7 inches per pixel. The LRO Camera system has taken about 1 million images so far in the mission.

— Obtained Extremely high resolution imagery as good as 8 in. per pixel from 12 mi. altitude  shedding new light on human lunar exploration and the U. S.- Soviet race to the Moon.  LRO has focused in on all 6 of the Apollo landing sites showing among other things Neil Armstrong’s specific footprints on the Moon. Those tracks can be seen in the image below leading to the right of the lunar module descent stage to the subtle Little West Crater which sits to the left of the much larger West Crater.  LRO has also located missing Soviet spacecraft,   like  Lunokhod 1 Moon Rover missing in the giant Imbrium Basin for 42 years,  but since located has been returned to service as a laser target for geodetic studies from Earth.

As the Apollo 11 Lunar Module (LM) neared the surface, Neil Armstrong could see the designated landing area would have been in a rocky area near West Crater. He had to change the flight plan and fly the LM westward to find a safe landing spot. This image is 742 meters wide (about 0.46 miles). North is towards the top of the image. Photo Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University


1 comment to A New Face On The Moon

  • Michael Harleman

    There are some fantastic videos out from the LRO that show the landing sites of all the Apollo missions. I wasn’t aware that the Soviet Union had sent anything to the moon. Goes to show what I know. We focus here so much on US history that we forget other nations also have put great emphasis on lunar exploration. Great photo Craig. Thanks for the article.