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An Arizona State University camera aboard NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has captured pictures of the descent stages of five Apollo landing sites just weeks after it began circling the moon.

For the first time since astronauts left the moon, scientists are able to see Apollo hardware on the lunar surface. The pictures – released Friday – show the lunar module descent stages left behind by five of the six Apollo moon landing missions. NASA expects the remaining Apollo 12 site to be photographed in the coming weeks.

With resolution about four feet per pixel, the modules themselves show as just a few pixels, but they cast long shadows from a low sun angle, making their locations readily evident.

“What’s really fantastic is how sharp the images are,” said ASU’s Mark Robinson, principal investigator for the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera. “The near-angle cameras on LROC are performing beautifully.”

Launched on June 18, the LRO reached an intermediate, elliptical lunar orbit on June 23. This two-month phase will allow for Testing and activating all the spacecraft subsystems and the scientific instruments on board, said Richard Vondrak, project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

The LROC captured the Apollo images between July 11 and July 15, said Robinson, promising the images released Friday are only a first glimpse for the orbiting cameras.

The LRO’s closest pass to any of the landing sites was about 100 km above Apollo 16. As the spacecraft continues to orbit, it will gain two to three times better resolution, plus fly over all of the landing sites under better lighting conditions.

“It was fantastic to see the hardware sitting on the surface, waiting for us to come back. It was exactly as we thought it would be,” Robinson said.

The deck of the descent stages is about 12 feet in diameter, which show as about 9 pixels on the LROC’s first images. At the Apollo 14 site, which had the best lighting conditions for the cameras so far, researchers have been able to see a set of scientific instruments placed by astronauts, as well as tracks left by the astronauts walking between the instrument suite and the module.

Though Indian, Chinese and Japanese missions have all taken images of the Apollo landing sites, that data is not high enough resolution to show the landing sites on the surface.

“These are the first I’ve seen where you can actually resolve the lunar module descent stages on the surface,” Robinson said.

The LRO is planned as NASA’s first step in returning humans to the moon. The detailed lunar images will help identify safe landing sites for future astronauts, locate potential resources and be compared with old Apollo images to study the changing surface of the moon.

“In a lot of ways we’re almost looking back in time today,” said Michael Wargo, NASA’s chief lunar scientist. “The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and all the terrific instruments on board are really all about the future, creating the kinds of maps and images that will allow us to return safely to the moon. These early images really show off the capabilities of Mark’s cameras.”

Imaging of the Apollo landing sites is important for the LRO mission because those sites are the most well known of any locations on the moon. The new images will allow NASA its most detailed study of the distribution and size of meteorite and sub-meteorite strikes on the lunar surface over time.

Robinson’s LROC instrument is actually a suite of three cameras – two high-resolution narrow-angle cameras and one lower-resolution wide-angle camera. When the spacecraft gets into its primary mission orbit in August, it will be in a nearly circular orbit about 31 miles above the lunar surface.

Another component to ASU’s LRO mission is an ambitious and careful project to produce high definition digital scans of all the film from the original Apollo missions, more than 36,000 images in all.

The project will allow full access for the first time to all original flight films for both researchers and the general public. Through an online interface, users will be able to browse through roughly 100 terrabytes of data and download any of the images.

The film is stored in a freezer at Johnson Space Center and the scanning team carefully removes the film one canister at a time, first to a refrigerator for 24 hours to equilibrate and then to room temperature to equilibrate for 24 hours before it is touched. It is then hand cleaned and scanned.

The three-year project, which will incorporate some of the Gemini and Mercury mission film, is expected to be complete by next year.

Published July 20, 2009 in Tech News Arizona.

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Eric Swedlund is a writer, photographer and editor living in Tucson, Arizona. His music writing has appeared regularly in the Tucson Weekly, Phoenix New Times, East Bay Express, The Rumpus and Souciant Magazine.

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