It’s been a stellar year for lunar exploration. Not since the halcyon days of Apollo has NASA focused so sharply on the moon, including last year’s confirmation of the presence of water in permanently shaded polar craters and a recently completed mapping of the moon by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.
The lunar orbiter has just finished a comprehensive mapping of the lunar surface from its 31-mile-high polar orbit. “It produced a comprehensive map of the lunar surface in unprecedented detail,” NASA said this week in announcing completion of the orbiter’s “exploration phase”. The spacecraft also used its sensors to search for resources, measure lunar temperatures and radiation levels and scout for future landing sites.
Speaking of landing sites, the orbiter has hopefully put an end to the “moon landing hoax” nonsense that permeates the Internet. The orbiter took exquisite, detailed photos of several Apollo landing sites in which the lunar module’s descent stage (left on the surface as a launching pad for the LM’s upper crew cabin), astronauts’ footprints, experiments and even the flag are clearly visible. Here is just one example.
(As one of the moon walkers said: “Why did we fake it nine times, if we faked it?” Good question.)
Along with documenting the Apollo landing sites, the orbiter also pinpointed the Russian Lunokhod 1 rover lost for nearly 40 years. The Russian rover, which carried a laser retro-reflector, was pinpointed on the lunar surface to within 150 feet, NASA managers said. In April, University of California at San Diego researchers using orbiter mapping data sent pulses of laser light from an observatory in New Mexico. The experiment not only confirmed the location of the lost Russian rover, but marked the first time laser signals had been bounced off the rover’s reflector back to Earth. The result was much more accurate data on the moon’s position and motion.
NASA says the lunar orbiter will now shift to scientific research. The objectives of this second phase should be completed by next March. NASA managers predict the lunar orbiter will gather more information than all previous planetary missions combined.
All this underscores that fact that our unmanned space probes have become incredibly reliable, yielding a treasure trove of new information and insights about our solar system. The moon appears to be one of the best places to focus our space robotics efforts, thereby savings funds that can be best used to develop the technologies needed for a revived manned solar exploration program.