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

Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter

The Moon continues to be a destination for scientific research, and it has become an international effort. Since the 1990s, the European Space Agency, Japan, India, China, and the U.S. have all sent probes to the Moon. In recent years, the U.S. has continued its photographic mapping of the Moon with the launch of the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) on June 18, 2009.

LRO Photography

The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC), developed at Arizona State University, is a three-camera assembly aboard the LRO. It has two cameras for high-resolution images of the surface and one wide-angle camera.

The orbiter also contains science experiments, including a cosmic ray telescope, neutron detector, laser altimeter to create a 3-D map of the Moon, and radar to image polar regions in search of ice.

Artist illustration of the LRO in lunar orbit where it remains today performing science experiments.

Artist illustration of the LRO in lunar orbit where it remains today performing science experiments. The spacecraft is not alone. In recent years, the European Space Agency, Japan, India, China, and Israel have also sent probes to the Moon. Image source: Chin, Gordon, et al. “Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Overview: The Instrument Suite and Mission.” Space Science Reviews, vol. 194, no. 4, 2007, pp. 391-419. View Source

The central peak inside Tycho Crater photographed by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. Image source: LROC image M162350671 in Keller, John W., et al. “The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Mission: Six Years of Science and Exploration at the Moon.” Icarus, vol. 273, pp. 2-24. View Source

Apollo Landing Sites

Some of the most popular photographs taken by the LRO are of the six Apollo landing sites. This photograph shows the valley of Taurus-Littrow. Can you spot Apollo 17’s Lunar Module, Challenger. Hint: Look for the astronauts’ tracks.

Photograph of the valley of Taurus-Littrow taken by the LRO.

LROC image M168000580 courtesy of Arizona State University/NASA.