Bad Astronomy

Apollo 17, then and now

Last week, NASA released new, higher-res images of three Apollo landing sites taken by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. BABloggee Rick Sheppe had a cool idea: why not compare these to ones taken by the Apollo astronauts themselves? In fact, by grabbing a frame taken by a 16mm movie camera on board the Apollo 17 ascent module as they left the Moon, you can compare the views seen by astronauts and LRO directly!

So I did it. I took a frame from the 16mm camera on Apollo 17, and the LRO pic of the same area. After rotating and adjusting the contrast of the original Apollo 17 picture a wee bit, here is what I got:

Coooool. The original Apollo 17 picture is on top, and the LRO pic on bottom.

If you’re curious, NASA has labeled some of the features in the Apollo pic. In that original picture you can clearly see the bottom half of the lunar module on the surface (the bug-like landing module had two parts; a lower half (the descent stage) that stayed on the Moon to save weight, and an upper half (the ascent module) that is what carried the astronauts back to orbit, and is where the camera was that took this shot), as well as several craters, boulders, and the scuffed surface tracks from the astronauts’ boots and the rover as they ambled and rode across the Moon.

These features are all much more clear in the higher resolution LRO picture, which also had the advantage of better lighting. I labeled a bunch of the features in the image – click this pic inset here to enlunanate. Feature 1 is the lander itself, and most of the rest are craters (several are overlapping, which is nifty, and 10 is oddly shaped). Note Feature 11, which looks like a dark jagged streak. In the Apollo picture you can almost dismiss it as a scratch or some film flaw, but in the LRO shot it’s clearly real, and a place where the astronauts’ bootprints are particularly dark. I also like the bright rocks that look like pinpoints in the Apollo picture but show some size in the LRO view.

I also like how you can tell the difference between the tracks left by the astronauts in their suits and ones made by the lunar rover: the rover tracks are two parallel grooves made by the wheels on the left and right sides of the vehicle!

Again, as I did when I first saw these images a few days ago, I had a weird sense of being there, a feeling that was visceral instead of intellectual. Sure, I know we’ve been to the Moon, multiple times. But these pictures really – pardon the odd metaphor – bring it home. And when you think that what we’re seeing from LRO in its lonely orbit around the Moon is the same as what the astronauts saw by simply looking out their window… well.

It’s pretty amazing what we can do sometimes, isn’t it?

Image credits: NASA; NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/ASU. Tip o’ the ALSEP to Rick Sheppe.

Related posts:

- LRO spots Apollo landing sites in high res
- LRO spots Apollo 12 footsteps
- One Giant Leap seen again
- … and the flag was still there
- Apollo 16 site snapped from orbit