40 Years after Apollo 11, LRO May See the Flag

Friday, July 17 2009 @ 11:20 pm EDT

Contributed by: bobmoody

UPDATE: OCT 8, 2009 - LCROSS to impact moon's southern polar region early Friday morning!!! Check out the bottom area of this article for what information I wrote about this event, and also go to this APOD site with info/image/link to NASA-TV. In case our weather craps out again, see it live as it happens either on NASA-TV or on other sites covering it. Just search around for "LCROSS Moon Impact" if you don't get NASA-TV. We'll probably see more rain locally......CRAPOLA!

UPDATE: August 27....New images of five of the six manned lunar landing sites are now in. CLICK HERE to see the new images.

We are nearing the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11 this July 20. With the launch of NASA's LRO/ LCROSS Mission on June 18, 2009, we may finally be able to see the flags left behind at the six lunar landing sites from low lunar orbit.

Here are the FIRST images, but more and much clearer photos are on their way in coming days/weeks. The Apollo 11 descent stage is casting a small shadow in the very center of this image. The flag was set up fairly close to this site, and I am suspecting that the launch of the ascent stage of Apollo 11 knocked the flag over at least at this site.
For that half of the American public that remembers seeing Armstrong's first footstep on the moon that Sunday evening in 1969, we'll see upcoming TV programs about the historic event and relive those moments from long ago. For the other half of the country, here is your chance to see history again as a NASA spacecraft orbiting the moon from about 55 miles above the surface will finally have the highest resolution cameras ever to orbit our satellite to take pictures of the landing sites of the Apollo missions. Not even Hubble Space Telescope has ever had this capability, and for everyone who has ever asked our AOAS members, "Can you see the flag on the moon?" we will soon be able to say yes, but not with my telescope.

I well remember seeing those historic television images from the moon as Neil Armstrong stepped upon the moon's surface on Sunday evening, July 20, 1969 around 9:00pm. I was 14 and I went outside and looked up at the moon just seconds after his historic first step because I wanted to see if the moon looked different once a man was actually standing on it, so I missed his famous words "That was one small step for a man...." But I also recall going in-and-out the back door several times looking up at that partially lit moon, and I tried as hard as I could to imagine what Earth would look like to Neil and Buzz from up there. It was a short contemplation, however, since I decided to get back to the TV screen to see more of the broadcast from the surface of the moon.

Apollo 17 astronaut and geologist Dr. Harrison Schmidt photographed by astronaut Gene Cernan with the American flag seeming to point at Earth as it was deployed on the final moon mission in December 1972.
The world had changed forever after that night, and I cherish those memories. Since becoming a true amateur astronomer when we started this club in January 1985, I've heard, "Can you see the flag on the moon?" more times than I could ever estimate......thousands of times, easily. And every time, I've had to say "No, I'm sorry, but no Earth telescope can see those flags." The words changed a little after Hubble launched in 1990, but not even the mighty eye in sky could do anything about seeing those tiny little flags either.

But with the launch this last week of NASA's Lunar Reconassaince Orbiter mission, that will finally change. LRO will image the surface of the moon with a resolution of something just under one meter, powerful enough to see those flags. It is trying to scout for new landing sites for our future Ares mission moon landings, and it will also seek out hidden deposits of water ice in perpetually shadowed craters at the north and south lunar poles. A suite of different instruments will seek out water by other means as well. There may be water ice in more places than first thought, hiding just under the surface where only highly sophisticated scientific instruments might detect it. LRO may just be able to detect these deposits of water ice.

But from the photographic cameras on LRO, we can finally expect to see the descent stages of the Lunar Modules that were left behind at the landing sites, along with the Lunar Rovers that still sit idle at the Apollo 15, 16 and 17 sites, and all six flags and possibly even an instrument or two of the experiments that were also left on the moon.

See the descent stages now at this web site, and check back often as the higher resolution images come in. http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/LRO/multimedia/lroimages/apollosites.html

Part deux....

LRO shares the ride on the Centaur rocket with the Lunar CRater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS). LRO will be released from the spacecraft shortly after they are sent towards their lunar destination. The LCROSS will stay with the Centaur rocket and after their first lunar flyby on the 5th day after launch, that very precise maneuver will place them into a slow, looping orbit around the Earth which will provide for a way for scientists to guide them into a trajectory to actually intercept the moon so that the LCROSS and the Centaur will both smash into the lunar surface and throw up giant clouds of dusty debris this August or September. LCROSS and the Centaur upper stage will crash into the moon, and with the Centaur hitting first, the LCROSS will first fly through the cloud of debris thrown up by the rocket's impact and send back sensory telemetry data immediately to ground stations on Earth. The LCROSS itself will then crash into the moon several miles from the rocket's impact crater and create its own smaller cloud of debris, and both clouds of dust will be seen coming up into the sunlight to be studied by special instruments fitted to telescopes on the ground stations at four separate sites in Arizona, New Mexico, and in Hawaii.

There is a SMALL CHANCE that amateur astronomers will be able to see the dust clouds thrown up by the two impacting spacecraft with telescopes of 10" to 12" diameter. Much depends on where the impacts will be allowed to take place, what phase the moon is in at the time of impact, many things will determine whether we'll have that slight chance of actually SEEING the impacts and the dust clouds they produce.

We'll be hearing more about this mission, the chances of it seeing any hints of water ice, and whether or not we're likely to see the impacts and debris clouds as time goes on. The launch was later than the articles about the event in the current issues of Astronomy and Sky & Telescope magazines, so those articles aren't accurate now. Stay tuned to the LRO and LCROSS websites to be truly up-to-the-minute on just what we might expect to see.

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