Lunar Satellite Pinpoints Apollo 17 Photo Sites

File this one under, “neat.” The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) has been used to help pinpoint the exact sites visited by the Apollo 17 mission team in 1972. Why is this important?

Glad you asked. Basically, we know where the astronauts landed but remember that cool dune buggy thing they were photographed driving? Yeah, well, that took them kilometers away fromt he landing site and a researchers could only really estimate where a bunch of the photographs they returned with were taken.

The moon, see, has no GPS system. So it’s not like they could exactly tell where they were. For the Apollo missions, this was really more about finding out exactly where a bunch of the panoramic photos like the one above were taken. But it has other implications also. From the Wired article:

[Mark] Robinson expects the new topographical maps will help geologists who need to know exactly where lunar samples came from. An example, he said, is the former Soviet Union’s robotic sample return missions from the mid-1970s.

Three robots named Luna each drilled about 0.5 pounds of lunar soil and carried it back to Earth. Luna 24′s samples returned in late 1976, but geologists around the world “pulled their hair out” over the rocks and dust, Robinson said, because the composition differed drastically from their expectations. Images beamed to Earth by LRO, however, show the robot landed on the rim of a crater — a spot where a deep and chaotic mixture of rock might exist.

A map of the sites visited by the Apollo 17 mission crew

A precise map of exactly where photos were taken by the Apollo 17 team.

So this has an obvious effect on the science being done. But it’s also pretty cool because it shows how well the LRO has been mapping the Moon’s surface. Now, sure, I gave a little crap about the other orbiters NASA launched to survey the Moon, but this is pretty extraordinary in that it allowed NASA to find the exact spot of where a pair of astronauts landed on a foreign world forty years ago.

To put that into context, if you’ve got a smart phone, think about how often you consult Google Maps just to locate a place that you already have a fair idea of its location. That’s how dependent we’ve become on our GPS system.

A nice little addendum, from the article:

In the future Robinson hopes to develop 3-D maps of the remaining Apollo landing sites, then publicly post the data for anyone who wants to use it. “People more imaginative than me could use it to create immersive environments,” he said. “It will be nowhere near as good as actually going to the moon, but it’s the second-best bet.”

That’s pretty neat. And just having a complete map of another planetary body is also cool. I’ll be really interested to see where the science goes on this one.