New Moon Orbiter Sends First Lunar Snapshots

NASA's newest spacecraft in orbit around the moon has sent its first snapshots of the lunar surface.

Released Thursday, the images from NASA's new Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter reveal a moon bathed in light and shadow in a region know as Mare Nubium, or the Sea of Clouds. They were taken by a pair of cameras that make up the orbiter's high-resolution imaging system.

"Our first images were taken along the moon's terminator - the dividing line between day and night - making us initially unsure of how they would turn out," said Mark Robinson, the principal investigator for the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera at the Arizona State University in Tempe.

Two of the new images were taken from a larger strip of terrain observed by the spacecraft's LROC eyes. They are NASA's first clear, up-close look at the moon in a decade, though the orbiter's partner probe beamed home grainy views from much farther away when both spacecraft arrived at the moon on June 23. Ultimately, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter will build new global maps of the entire lunar surface as it orbits the moon.

The images released Thursday show cratered regions that span an area just under a mile across. In some parts, the shadows are so dark that surface details are completely obscured, while in others the stark contrast between night and day reveal dramatic views of the moon's craters and battered surface.

"Because of the deep shadowing, subtle topography is exaggerated, suggesting a craggy and inhospitable surface," Robinson said. "In reality, the area is similar to the region where the Apollo 16 astronauts safely explored in 1972. While these are magnificent in their own right, the main message is that LROC is nearly ready to begin its mission."

NASA launched the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and a smaller impactor probe toward the moon on June 18. The powerful orbiter will seek out potential landing sites for future astronauts, as well as build new maps of the moon's surface, temperature extremes and radiation environment. It will also hunt for water ice in the permanently shadowed craters of the moon's south pole.

The orbiter's partner craft, the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite, zipped around the moon on June 23 and is due to purposely crash into a shadowed crater on Oct. 9 in the hope of finding definitive proof of water ice. The impactor probe is attached to a massive, but empty, rocket stage, which it will send plunging into the crater first, scan the resulting crash and plume for water ice, then perform its own death dive four minutes later while telescopes in space and on Earth look on.

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