Another Apollo celebration event just hit, and boy it's a biggy: NASA released in-orbit photos taken by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter that show the Apollo landing sites on the Moon, complete with amazing detail.
The LRO is undergoing pre-mission systems checkouts in a temporary orbit around the Moon—its mission, starting from a 31 mile-high orbit in August—will be to produce some of the most accurate survey information about the lunar surface ever seen, with the goal of producing a 3D Moon map that'll help plan the next missions to the Moon.
Though the craft is still in its testing phase, its cameras are working well...and what better way to check them out than to image the previous Moon mission's landing sites. Which is what's been done—for every single one, except Apollo 12. The resolution of the images is limited by the camera and the LRO's current orbit, so a single pixel in these photos is about four feet across on the ground. As a result the landers, or LEMs, including Armstrong and Aldrin's Eagle appear as only about nine pixels. That's not enough to discern much detail—and remember that all that's left of these historic rockets are their legs, since the rest returned to orbit with the astronauts. Though what's left of the vehicle doesn't look like much, their shadows, on the other hand, stand out for all to see.
Particularly amazing is the site of Apollo 14. Thanks to a fortuitous angle of the sun and the LRO's orbit, the site is shown with such amazing clarity that you can just about see the tracks the astronaut's boots left in the lunar dust as they trekked to deposit a science package far away from the LEM.
What's the scientific value of these images? Not much, other than to show the LRO team how accurately they can aim and focus the satellite's instruments. But in terms of PR for NASA it's practically priceless—proof positive that men stood on the Moon forty years ago. That's a historic fact that's so far back in the cultural memory that it's potency is beginning to fade, and that's let a whole bunch of crazy conspiracy theories arise. These LRO photos put paid to all that nonsense. And they gave me, at least, a frisson of excitement at the thought that people will soon be going to the Moon again.