The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter is still in orbit around the moon — just like it says on the tin — and its LROC three-camera system just delivered some of the most amazing high-resolution images we’ve ever seen.
Let’s explain what’s going on here. From what we see on the Earth’s surface, the moon rising and setting always looks beautiful, although we’re seeing the same side each time. If you’re an astronaut on the surface of the moon, though, you don’t see the opposite thing happen with Earth. Instead, the Earth always sits in the same spot right above the horizon, and changes only slightly thanks to the moon’s own wobble. That said, the Earth’s appearance does change, thanks to its rotation and changing cloud cover.
That brings us to the new images, originally snapped at approximately 83 miles above the surface in October, above the far-side crater Compton. The LROC team said in a statement that in order to first take the black-and-white image, the spacecraft first has to roll over 67 degrees on its side, and then slew (see video above) with the direction of travel to maximize the width of the horizon, all while the spacecraft is traveling at almost 3,600 miles per hour. Then, since the image comes back distorted, thanks to all of this motion, they then have to correct for it.
Then, for the color image, they image the scene repeatedly with the wide-angle camera while the narrow-angle camera shoots it just once, and then blend the images together to sharpen the Earth. Finally, they correct for the huge difference in brightness between the Earth and the moon’s surface, so that you can see both in the same image.
LROC actually contains two narrow-angle cameras (pictured above) that deliver 0.5-meter-scale panchromatic images over a 3.1-mile region, as well as a wide-angle camera (pictured below) that snaps 100-meters-per-pixel images in seven color bands over a 37-mile portion of the surface. The cameras capture black and white as well as lower-resolution, multi-spectral images of the lunar surface.
The LRO launched in June 2009, and orbits the moon at anywhere from 30 to 125 miles above the surface. It sends images back to Earth in four passes per day of 310 gigabits each, or 155GB per day in total.
Earlier this year, a fear of NASA budget cuts led some to think that the agency would wind down the LRO mission as well as operating the 11-year-old Opportunity rover mission on the surface of Mars. It turns out those fears were unfounded, and NASA actually got a budget for 2016 that was bigger than expected. And back in 2013, NASA tried something else unexpected with the LRO: It beamed a digital version of the Mona Lisa to it via laser, in what was then the first time anyone achieved one-way laser communication at planetary distances.
At any rate, click the image below for a 3,439-by-5,000-pixel version we made out of the new 302GB color TIF. Absolutely stunning.
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