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Mapping the Moon: A Brief History of Lunar Cartography from Galileo to the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter

Earth-based Lunar Photography

A new era of lunar cartography began in the late 19th century when large Earth-based telescopes began photographic surveys of the Moon.

Paris Observatory

In the early 1890s, astronomer Maurice Loewy conducted the first major photographic survey of the Moon from the Paris Observatory. Loewy’s atlas, published between 1896 and 1904, featured 80 plates of the Moon which he had selected from 6,000 photographs that were taken by the observatory’s 23.6-inch equatorial coudé refractor telescope. The publication became the standard lunar atlas well into the 20th century.

Plate XXXVII, “Radiance of Tycho, Waning Phase” from Atlas photographique de la lune.

Plate XXXVII, “Radiance of Tycho, Waning Phase” from Atlas photographique de la lune. Image source: Loewy, Maurice, and Pierre Henri Puiseux. Atlas photographique de la lune. Paris, Imprimerie nationale, 1896-1909. View Source

Lick Observatory

A second major photographic survey of the Moon began at the Lick Observatory near San Jose, California. Edward Holden began photographing the Moon with the observatory’s 36-inch refractor telescope in the early 1890s. He published the first plates of a proposed lunar atlas in 1897. Though the observatory had planned to publish 60 plates, only 19 were produced.

Illustration of Plate 2 from the Lick Observatory's lunar atlas.

Plate 2 from the Lick Observatory’s lunar atlas. Image source: Lick Observatory. Observatory Atlas of the Moon. W.W. Law, 1897. View Source

Photographic Lunar Atlas

In 1960, astronomer Gerard Kuiper published the last major atlas of the Moon prior to the space age that was based on Earth-based photographs. The atlas contains 281 photographs taken between 1901 and 1959 at five observatories: Mount Wilson, Lick, McDonald, and Yerkes observatories in the U.S., and Pic du Midi Observatory in France. Kuiper would become the principal investigator for NASA’s Ranger program in the mid-1960s, editing the voluminous photographic atlas of Ranger pictures.

Image of the moon taken from the Lick Observatory in 1919

Image from the Photographic Lunar Atlas that was taken at the Lick Observatory on September 12, 1919. Image source: Kuiper, Gerard Peter, ed. Photographic Lunar Atlas: Based on Photographs Taken at the Mount Wilson, Lick, Pic du Midi, McDonald, and Yerkes Observatories. Chicago UP, 1960. View Source