In a heavy blow to conspiracy theorists, NASA has published startling new images of the Apollo moon mission landing sites, detailed enough to show even the ghostly foot tracks left frozen in time by US astronauts four decades ago.
The new images were taken recently of the Apollo 12, 14 and 17 landing sites by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), and offer views of equipment left on the moon’s surface such as the Lunar Rover and its wheel marks, and even the long foot-tracks left by one of the astronauts.
Poignantly, one of the objects pointed out by NASA, is the US Stars and Stripes flag planted by the last mission to visit the moon, Apollo 17.
The key to the clarity of the latest images has been taking the pictures using a special camera on board the LRO from an angle that shows up objects in relief against the sun’s light.
A good example of this is the cables running to the ALSEP lunar experimentation equipment, which would normally be too small to be seen by any camera. However, from the right angle they reflect light and now show up in the new images as bright streaks.
The images are not the first of the sites released by NASA – much blurrier images were published in 2009 - but they are the most detailed ever taken. The definition is remarkably considering that the LRO took the images from a distance of around 13 miles from the surface.
"The new low-altitude Narrow Angle Camera images sharpen our view of the moon's surface," said Arizona State University researcher Mark Robinson, who works on images taken from the LRO camera. "A great example is the sharpness of the rover tracks at the Apollo 17 site. In previous images the rover tracks were visible, but now they are sharp parallel lines on the surface," he said.
NASA’s publication of the images is designed to show off the capabilities of the LRO, which has been imaging the moon in new clarity since its mission started in June 2009, but an unspoken purpose is to draw attention to the extraordinary but recently under-estimated achievement of the Apollo missions.
The moon is a probably unique example of a mission where scientific discovery came second to the act of visiting the object of discovery itself. In many people’s minds, the moon was ‘done’ in 1969 when Neil Armstrong set foot on its surface; the LRO demonstrates that nothing could be further from the truth.