Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Our new Lunar Orbiters

Two new US space probes, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and LCROSS, entered orbit around the Moon today. These are the first US Moon probes since Clementine, which studied the Moon in the mid-1990's, and they will certainly entail our most detailed study of the Moon since Apollo.

To pave the way for Apollo, the US sent five appropriately named satellites (Lunar Orbiters I through V) into orbit around the Moon from August 1966 to August 1967. The Lunar Orbiters photographed the potential Apollo landing sites in high resolution, mapped more than 90% of the lunar surface at medium resolution, and discovered the "mascons" (mass concentrations) which cause the Moon's gravitational pull to be stronger in some spots. Combined with the data from the Ranger crash-landers and the Surveyor soft-landers, the US gained the information that it needed to send astronauts to orbit and land on the Moon.

The book illustrated above is NASA Publication SP-200, "The Moon as Viewed by Lunar Orbiter," from 1970. This is actually the oldest item in my collection which I bought with my own money. When I was in 8th grade, I was introduced to a curator from the Smithsonian, who had several poster-size Lunar Orbiter photographs that he could not identify. I offered to find out what they were for him. The only resource I was aware of was this recently-published book that I had seen at the public affairs office at NASA Headquarters. It cost $10, which was a lot of money to a kid who was only getting a $1.00 per week allowance. My dad suggested that to earn the money for the book, I should saw up a large tree that had fallen in our backyard. Much to his surprise (I was, after all, a bookish, overweight, nerd who was not predisposed to anything resembling physical labor), I took our bow saw and cut up the 40-ft. tree in one afternoon.

I was very pleased to have a real, official NASA publication of my very own. I spent a lot of time studying the photos. Perhaps the best part of the book was the four pages of 3-D anaglyphs. The book came with a set of red-blue glasses for the 3-D photos. The photo of the crater Tycho was particularly eye-popping!

I am pleased now that I can share in the images from LRO and LCROSS in real-time. In addition, the Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project (LOIRP) is applying modern image processing techniques to the original Lunar Orbiter data tapes, with astonishing results. All this , without my having to get out of my comfy chair, and without having to saw up trees!

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