NASA Finishes First Map of Moon's Craters

Since June 2009, NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has been circling the moon, compiling data for the first full topographic map of its surface. The data implies that 3.9 billion years ago asteroids pounded the moon (and the Earth), likely evaporating water supplies.


NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter is allowing researchers to create the most precise and complete map to date of the moon's complex, heavily cratered landscape.


Heavily Cratered

Here LOLO captures a topographic map of the moon's southern hemisphere. The false colors indicate elevation: red areas are highest and blue lowest.

The Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter (LOLA) works by propagating a single laser pulse through a Diffractive Optical Element that splits it into five beams. These beams then strike and are backscattered from the lunar surface. 

From the return pulse, the LOLA electronics determines the time of flight which, accounting for the speed of light, provides a precise measurement of the range from the spacecraft to the lunar surface. Range measurements, combined with accurate tracking of the spacecraft's location, are used to build a map revealing the contours of the lunar landscape. The five beams create a two-dimensional spot pattern that unambiguously reveals slopes.


Northern Hemisphere

This shot of the northern hemisphere is an example of how accurate the new maps are than ever before.

"The LOLA data also allow us to define the current and historical illumination environment on the moon," said Neumann. Lunar illumination history is important for discovering areas that have been shaded for long periods. Such places, typically in deep craters near the lunar poles, act like cold storage, and are capable of accumulating and preserving volatile material like water ice.

The landscape in polar craters is mysterious because their depths are often in shadow. The new LOLA dataset is illuminating details of their topography for the first time.


Apollo 15 Landing Site

LOLA topographic map centered on the Apollo 15 landing site, highlighting the Apennine and Caucasus ranges and the fairly subtle wrinkling in Serenitatis.


First Full Moon Map

In this scene taken from an animation created by the space agency, lunar craters larger than 12.5 miles in diameter "light up."


The Youngest Crater

A topographic map shows Orientale basin (580 miles in diameter), the largest young crater on the Moon. This basin formed from a projectile that hit the Moon about 3.8 billion years ago and penetrated deep into the lunar crust, ejecting millions of cubic miles of material. These large basins show the effects of such impacts on early planetary crusts in the inner solar system -- including the Earth.


A Silicon Volcano?

Data from the LRO spacecraft's Diviner camera has been superimposed on a mosaic of Hansteen Alpha, which NASA believes is a silica-rich volcano. Red and orange colors indicate regions highly rich in silica, a chemical compound found in quartz and known for its hardness.

NASA/Godard/UCLA/Stony Brook

The Moon

During its mission, the Galileo spacecraft returned a number of images of Earth's only natural satellite. Galileo surveyed the moon on Dec. 7, 1992, on its way to explore the Jupiter system in 1995-1997. This color picture shows the moon as that craft captured it; on the upper-left is the dark, lava-filled Mare Imbrium, Mare Serenitatis (middle left), Mare Tranquillitatis (lower left), and Mare Crisium, the dark circular feature toward the bottom of the mosaic. Also visible in this view are the dark lava plains of the Marginis and Smythii Basins at the lower right. 


Western Nearside

A map of the western nearside of the moon. The blue smooth area on the right is known as Oceanus Procellarum, a relatively young and less cratered area flooded by lunar lavas mid-way through the moon's history. The area to the left is more heavily cratered highlands, colored red and white to indicate the highest elevations.


Where the Craters Are

A lunar topographic map shows one of the most densely cratered regions on the Moon. The topography is derived from over 2.4 billion shots made by one camera aboard the NASA spaceship (called the Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter [LOLA] instrument). These most heavily cratered areas are among the best candidates to study and explore to understand the earliest lunar history.


The Moon's Biggest Craters

An outline of the craters mapped on the surface of the moon from Lunar Orbiter Laser altimeter (LOLA) data superimposed on a rendering of the moon's surface. The moon went through an intense bombardment around 3.9 billion years ago, before Saturn and Jupiter were somehow shifted, lessening the gravity that had been pulling meteors into the planets. This left the moon's surface scarred and cratered , and it’s likely any water would have been scattered and evaporated. 


What's in the Soil?

What's the moon made of? This map shows variations in the composition of the moon, as measured by a radiometer. The map is centered on the lunar nearside, which is visible from Earth, between 90 W and 90 E. The iron- and magnesium-rich areas appear red, while the calcium-rich highland appear blue-green. Highland areas with high silica (labeled) and enhanced sodium regions (purple circles) appear dark blue. 


From the East

On the left is part of the familiar part of the Moon observed from Earth (the eastern part of the nearside). In the middle left-most part of the globe is Mare Tranquillitatis (light blue) the site of the Apollo 11 landing, and above this an oval region (Mare Serenitatis; dark blue) the site of the Apollo 17 landing. Most of the dark blue areas are lunar maria, low lying regions composed of volcanic lava flows that formed after the heavily cratered lunar highlands (and are thus much less cratered). 


NASA Finishes First Map of Moon's Craters

Since June 2009, NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has been circling the moon, compiling data for the first full topographic map of its surface. The data implies that 3.9 billion years ago asteroids pounded the moon (and the Earth), likely evaporating water supplies.

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