Zoom in on a HUGE lunar bullseye

By Phil Plait | June 19, 2010 8:49 am

If you’ve ever wanted to download a ginormous image of the Moon and explore it, now’s your chance: the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera folks have released a monster 185 megapixel image of one of the biggest smackdowns on the Moon: Orientale Basin.

lro_orientale

Yowza! Click to get the 1400 x 1400 pixel PNG, or you can try to swallow the 122 Mb TIF at the full resolution of 13,590 x 13,590 pixels!

Orientale is a vast impact basin, the hole left by an asteroid that hit the Moon about three billion years ago. Looking like a humongous bulls-eye, it’s a multi-ring crater, and the outer ramparts are a full 950 km (590 miles) across. That’s half again bigger than my home state of Colorado.

To give you an idea of just how big this is — and also, to be honest, to scare myself a little — I superimposed the picture of Orientale on a map of the United States. This is to scale, folks:

us_orientale

Holy. Frakking. Crap.

Whatever hit the Moon to create this basin must have been about 100 kilometers (60 miles) across. That would have made it 1000 times the mass of the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs. If something like that hit the Earth today, there would be no life left on our planet. At all. Happily, nothing that big is headed our way.

Oh, but what a sight that must have been. An impact that size would release the energy of 100 billion one-megaton hydrogen bombs. It would have been visible across the solar system! Amazingly, though, such events were a little more common back then; the solar system used to be filled with monster asteroids itching for a fight. That period of bombardment ended billions of years ago, though. Yay.

The image from LROC is pretty amazing. It’s actually a mosaic of quite a few individual images from the Wide Angle Camera. The resolution is about 100 meters per pixel in the full image. If you don’t want to download that big picture, you can interactively zoom in on the basin on the LROC website. The black areas are where data are missing (or where the Moon is modest, perhaps).

You can see that Orientale is not like other craters. The event was so huge that it punched right into the Moon, like a fist through a styrofoam sheet, and the crater left behind got partially filled up with lava. That’s why there’s no obvious rim and bowl shape you usually see in smaller craters. The multiple rings are not fully understood — it’s rather hard to model an impact that releases the energy of a few billion nuclear bombs — though they are common in giant impacts. It may be that waves of energy blasting out from the impact event ripple through the ground like earthquakes, and where they rebound and interact you get those rings.

Since the original event, other, smaller impacts have dotted it, but again I refer you to the map of the US above to see what "smaller" means in this case! Some are bigger than cities and counties. Surrounding the inner part of the basin is terrain loaded with scarps (steep cliffs), gullies cut by flowing lava, and cracks caused by the shifting landscape. It’s really worth your time to simply scroll around the interactive map and see what’s there. And remember, at highest zoom each pixel is about the size of a football stadium.

Friday, June 18, 2010 was the first anniversary of the launch of LRO. Consider this image a fantastic present to us!

Image credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University

Comments (54)

  1. Silly Phil, everyone knows we don’t have satellites orbiting the moon. This image is OBVIOUSLY a photoshop conspiracy coverup produced by NASA.

  2. StevePage

    Why is there always astronomy on here? I come on here to read about religion and skepticism, not astronomy. ;)

    Amazing picture, Phil. Ta muchly for the link.

  3. Wow! Happy anniversary. Lovely.

  4. Jamey

    The Monoliths are coming! The Monoliths are coming!

  5. MathMike

    Now we just need someone with better skills than I to make a little java app that allows you to place the center of the crater on your own home city.

  6. Wendy

    Yowza… the Yellowstone Caldera that will vaporize us is only 55x72km… This crater is (if my math isn’t totally screwed up…) over 170 times bigger! Watching that impact would’ve been almost as cool as the rumored Betelgeuse pending supernova…

  7. Jon Hanford

    Wow. The coolest looking impact basin on the moon. Way to go LRO. As it happens, the Lunar and Planetary Institute recently digitized the USGS Geologic Atlas of the Moon and created a website to display them. If you want to see a (fantastic!) geological interpretation of the Orientale Basin, check this out: http://www.lpi.usra.edu/resources/mapcatalog/usgs/I1034/ (Charts available in 6.4Mb and 25Mb sizes!)

  8. Michel

    “This is to scale”
    Thank god it´s in America.
    phew

  9. Since a recent post mentioned looking out for asteroids and other objects that could impact Earth I wonder about the consequences of a large asteroid impacting the Moon. I don’t recall reading about anyone observing such an event with the exception of one mentioned in the Cosmos series where it was said a monk saw a lunar impact during the middle ages.

    Other than a spectular site what effect would a big lunar impact by an asteroid or comet have here on Earth other than producing some new cults and urban legends.

  10. There’s an old sci-fi book called Lucifer’s Hammer (by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle) about life on Earth after a comet impact. It’s available on audible. The comet broke up as it neared Earth and hit in several chunks. The descriptions of the impacts are done vividly by people on the ground, in planes, and in space. Highly recommended if you’re an impact-nut.

  11. Messier Tidy Upper

    Great image. :-)

    Impact centred on Boulder I take it?

    I second (#4.) Michel’s comment & will add – & phew it was billions of years ago! ;-)

    @ 6. EasyAstronomer Says:

    There’s an old sci-fi book called Lucifer’s Hammer (by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle)

    Yes, read that years ago & second that. :-)

    There are, indeed, a few good books on bolide impacts out there – my personal fave being ‘Rogue Asteroids & Doomsday Comets’ by Duncan Steel (Published by John Wiley & Sons, 1995.) which is non-fiction and my fave fiction version being Arthur C. Clarke’s ‘The Hammer of God’ (publ. Victor Gollancz /Orbit books, 1993. ) which unless I’m very much mistaken (to quote Murray Walker and as has been known to happen) helped invent spaceguard and destroyed Venice!

    Duncan Steel’s ‘Target Earth’ (Readers Digest Books, 2000) is another more recent factual one I’d highly recommend reading. :-)

    PS. For anyone whose interested – Australia has just drawn 1-all with Ghana in the world Cup game. Rubbish refereeing as usual. :-(

  12. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    there would be no life left on our planet […] such events were a little more common back then

    I take this was part of the Last Heavy Bombardment.

    This research in Nature [2009] make sterilizing claims problematic, as thermal and population modeling predicts that under no circumstances would life not survive a sustained LHB:

    Our analysis shows that there is no plausible situation in which the habitable zone was fully sterilized on Earth, at least since the termination of primary accretion of the planets and the postulated impact origin of the Moon.

    Their initial estimated distribution of observed impactors (Fig 2) has several larger bruisers up to ~ 1000 km. For good measure, they tests mass distributions equaling orders of magnitude intenser bombardment (IIRC). Presumably it would have taken a Mars sized impactor, i.e. the Moon event, to sterilize Earth.

    Since the biosphere is much more robust today, with later days consortia of genomes (complicated genome sets in single specie hydrogen eaters making a living off of radioactive minerals) or bacteria (complicated consortia of thousands of co-evolving species in caves) populating deep down oceans and crust, sterilization would be an even unlikelier event today.

    [I like the observation that there was a fair chance that mesophiles survived LHB, i.e. that there was always parts of the crust, however small, that increased less than 10 K in temperature. Apparently there is no reason to think LHB was a sterilizer or an all out temperature bottleneck.]

    I think it is interesting stuff, having consequences for our ideas of life origins (when did it happen, how robust is it, et cetera). Maybe someone should write a book about it. :-D

  13. Pretty neat. I just taught my students in class yesterday about impact craters and used Orientale as an example of a multi-ring impact basin. Too bad I didn’t know about THIS image yesterday!

  14. Jason Dick

    I’d have to chip in here with Torbjörn and express skepticism that an impact that size would wipe out all microorganisms. I could easily imagine such an impact wiping out all multicellular life, of course, but bacteria deep in the ocean and deep underground? Seems unlikely. You’d have to have an impact big enough to liquefy the entire surface of the Earth for that to happen, or at least come darned close to it, I would tend to think. Sort of like the impact that has been hypothesized to have produced the Moon.

  15. Dan

    Now, the last comment was an upper, if a bit dry! Great stuff by all!

  16. Messier Tidy Upper

    In other sorta related news :

    ***

    Space Camera

    Scientists in Hawaii are using what is believed to be the worlds largest digital camera to search for killer asteroids. The University of Hawaii said yesterday [that] the world was now “a slightly safer place” because of the new Pan-STARRS telescope atop Haleakala on Maui.

    Source : Page 69, The Advertiser newspaper, 2010 June 19th.

    ***

    Worth a blog post with more details do you think BA? :-)

    Or at least the explanation for what the STARRS acronymn stands for please anyone? :-)

    @ 13. Stuart R. Says:

    Pretty neat. I just taught my students in class yesterday about impact craters and used Orientale as an example of a multi-ring impact basin. Too bad I didn’t know about THIS image yesterday!

    Yeah, its always just the day after isn’t it? ;-)

    @ 12. Torbjörn Larsson, OM :

    Maybe someone should write a book about it.

    I think somebody already has .. a certain Dr P … something I think. I think the author even has a really popular science blog going somewhere .. or even a couple of books out there .. hmm .. If I could just recall that name agian .. P .. Pl..something like that, ending in ..t maybe? Nope can’t quite remember! ;-)

  17. BigBadSis

    @ 14. Stuart R. Isn’t school out for the summer?? Phil, move the image down south a bit and a little east to center it over Texas. That would be a relief!

  18. @17 BigBadSis — I’m teaching a summer “semester” class. 5 days/week, 95 minutes/day for 5 weeks. Crash course through a 1-semester solar system class.

  19. Kevin F.

    And the moon saves Earth again!

  20. fb36

    Is it really impossible to take pictures of lunar vehicles left on the Moon?

  21. lafeyette_management

    Hey, anyone here interested in (or aware of) a project that uses BOINC to search for NEO’s and other earth-threatening asteroids? I’ve got a couple pretty high end workstations (and am planning to obtain one with no less than 32 cores! and 896 GPGPU cores) to process BOINC work-units to track and identify asteroids that could pose a threat to earth.

    Any information (or requests) would be much appreciated.

    A./

  22. Chief

    Phil.

    Can you give some numbers on the sizes of impacts visible on the moon vs earth. What is the largest size of a metallic body that could burn up and not reach the ground on earth, should this size impact the moon, what size would it leave. Would the impact point be visible in the pic above.

    Wonder if anyone has counted the number of impact points on the moon.

  23. DrFlimmer

    @ MessierTidyUpper

    PS. For anyone whose interested – Australia has just drawn 1-all with Ghana in the world Cup game. Rubbish refereeing as usual. :-(

    Me, as a German, would have preferred if Australia had won and they had enough chances in the last ten minutes to do it!

    Oh, btw, nice picture. It should almost have the size of Germany (maybe a bit smaller)… Well, that thing is huge!

  24. OtherRob

    Orientale is a vast impact basin, the hole left by an asteroid that hit the Moon about three billion years ago.

    So how do we know it was three billion years ago and not, say, one billion years ago? Or one million years ago? Or last week? Okay, I can probably guess the answer to that last one. ;)

  25. Amazing pic… should just about take me over my broadband limit!

  26. Keith (the first one)

    The comparison with the USA is fascinating, but I can’t visualise it compared to the whole Moon. I guess it’s too easy to forget that the Moon is much smaller than the Earth and imagine it being the same size.

  27. I killed the dinosaurs!!! Ran ‘em over with my truck.

    (Kidding. Everyone knows they all drowned in the flood. Didn’t make it onto the ark. Der.)

  28. froonium

    “That’s a big twinkie.”

    Also, the bullseye should be one state to the left.

  29. Mark Hansen

    fb36 (#20), there are images of lunar landers already available. Tiny in the photographs but with identifiable features nonetheless. Google “lunar reconnaisance orbiter” and go to NASA’s site.

    Just waiting now for Scott C. Waring to chime in about how the black areas aren’t missing data but really buildings built by… oh, let’s say the Zeta Reticulans. Or the reptiloids.

  30. #20 fb36:
    No, it isn’t impossible. LRO already has photographed the Apollo landing sites; Phil has shown us some fantastic examples on this very blog. The images show not only the Lunar Modules, but even the wheel tracks left by the Lunar Rovers.

  31. #11 Messier:
    Allow to to correct you on Sir Arthur, as I’m also an avid fan.
    The Hammer of God is about a mission to deflect an asteroid which is on a collision course.
    Sir Arthur coined the name Spaceguard, and described the destruction of Venice, in his much earlier novel Rendezvous With Rama ( 1973 ); it was his fictitious Spaceguard which discovered Rama, the alien artificial world.

  32. Scott de B.

    “So how do we know it was three billion years ago and not, say, one billion years ago? Or one million years ago? Or last week? ”

    We can estimate the rate of impacts on the Moon. Older areas have more craters than fresh areas. Based on the number and size of superimposed craters on the basin, we can estimate the age.

  33. #29 Mark: of course the black areas are missing data. The question is, why is NASA censoring them?

  34. #22. Chief Says:

    I think those are some very interesting questions and I’d also be very interested in what the answers are!

  35. Jon Hanford

    “….the explanation for what the STARRS acronymn stands for….”

    Panoramic Survey Telescope & Rapid Response System = PanSTARRS

  36. Patrick

    Long time have I yearned of Colorado the recipient of a state-sized meteor impact. It is now that I must thank you for the fulfillment of that happiness wish, if only in the realm of the dreamstate.

  37. Patrick

    “If something like that hit the Earth today, there would be no life left on our planet. At all.”

    I see you’re a bacteria-phobe.

  38. Craig DeForest

    Big deal, Phil. After all, you’re living on the ashes of a planet-destroying collision (that merged two terrestrial planets to create a binary system — one with an anomalously large core, and one with essentially no metallic core) – in that sense the entire Earth is a giant collision site.

  39. Messier Tidy Upper

    31. Neil Haggath Says:

    #11 Messier: Allow to to correct you on Sir Arthur, as I’m also an avid fan.
    The Hammer of God is about a mission to deflect an asteroid which is on a collision course. Sir Arthur coined the name Spaceguard, and described the destruction of Venice, in his much earlier novel Rendezvous With Rama ( 1973 ); it was his fictitious Spaceguard which discovered Rama, the alien artificial world.

    Of course you can correct me! Ah yes. That’s the one I meant! The original first and best ‘Rama’ novel how could I forget! [ *Facepalm* ] Consider me corrected. ;-)

    ‘Hammer of God’ featured the asteroid Kali and was a good book as well. Been too long since I last re-read either of them obviously. The Wikipages for each if they’re of interest are :

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rendezvous_with_Rama#Project_Spaceguard

    &

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Hammer_of_God

    @23. DrFlimmer Says:

    @ MessierTidyUpper – PS. For anyone whose interested – Australia has just drawn 1-all with Ghana in the world Cup game. Rubbish refereeing as usual.

    Me, as a German, would have preferred if Australia had won and they had enough chances in the last ten minutes to do it!

    I would have preferred us to win too but its pretty hard when you’re a man down – our best striker at that, unfairly and so early – for the second game in a row. :-(

    It just seems like three or four World Cup games in a row (Italy last time, our first two games this year) Australia has copped some really harsh and seemingly biased refereeing decisions and had our best players red carded and yellow carded for very minor incidents that they shouldn’t have been red carded or penalised for whilst players from other nations seem to get away with things they should have been red carded for like blatant diving and handballs. Infuriating. :-(

  40. DrFlimmer

    @ Messier Tidy Upper

    Agreed. The referees decisions in our group are at least open for debate! The red card for your player in the first game (against Germany) was never ever a red card! Yellow would have been ok! And Germany experienced the same problem (10 vs 11 players for about an hour) against Serbia and lost, too.

  41. Gary Ansorge

    22 and 39

    “largest size that could make it to the ground w/o burning up”

    Of course it depends on the meteorites structure. Loose aggregates would fall apart. A solid chunk of iron on the other hand would make it to the surface more or less intact. The real question is how much would our atmosphere SLOW the impactor and the lower bound is about 50,000 tons. Above that mass, our atmosphere would have almost no effect on the meteorite velocity at all.

    Basically, at that mass, we’d could see the rock light up at about 150 km altitude and at 30 km/sec, we’d have a good 5 secs to bend over and kiss our buns good bye.

    Gary 7

  42. Matija

    #24: “So how do we know it was three billion years ago and not, say, one billion years ago? Or one million years ago? Or last week? ”

    # 32: We can estimate the rate of impacts on the Moon. Older areas have more craters than fresh areas. Based on the number and size of superimposed craters on the basin, we can estimate the age.

    Actually, crater counting gives us only relative dates, unless it is calibrated using a surface dated in the lab. In the case of the Orientale basin, crater counts and superposition (i.e. overlap of geologic features) tell us that it is younger than the even larger Imbrium basin, and that it is older than almost all maria (dark flat lava flows). Apollo astronauts collected many samples of mare materials and some are as old as 3.8 billion years. Imbrium impact made a mess of lunar nearside and most “highland” (non-mare) rocks collected by astronauts record impact(s) at 3.85-3.9 billion years ago, so this is taken as the age of the Imbrium basin. So Orientale impact had to happen sometime between these two limits (~3.85 and ~3.8 Gyr ago).

  43. Pareidolius

    Thanks for that humbling scale. When I was looking at it the other day, I thought I was seeing something about the size of the Bay Area, not a quarter of the country! Now I’m even more in awe of the LRO’s optics.

  44. Jan D

    OMG!
    This is definite proof that aliens are playing darts with our solar system.
    And the worst thing is: they sometimes hit!

  45. Szwagier

    I read Lucifer’s Hammer, too. I always wondered whether the mailman in that (Harry Something?) was a basis for Kevin Costner’s atrocity The Postman. I hope not.

    Hot Fudge Sundae falls on a Tuesday this week!

  46. Robert Carnegie

    To scale, sure, but I’ve seen the whole moon and it’s about the size of a penny. So proportionately this is only – What?

  47. GriffonJames

    Can someone explain how these multiple image mosaics end up with the sun’s shadows being consistent across the whole picture? Is this a mosaic of strips captured during a single orbital pass? Or, if taken spread out over time and multiple passes, is this a small subset of images of this area which have been selected based upon the matching sun angles?

  48. Chris

    Hmmm… any proof the moon was always in orbit around the earth or did that impact 3 billion years ago relocate it here? What might have been the environment of the moon before said impact had it been in another location and didn’t have the release the energy of 100 billion one-megaton hydrogen bombs to blast it’s terrain into the atmosphere (if it had one) blocking out the sun and probably vaporizing almost any water on the moon (if it had some) without gravity from rotation in orbit after it was knocked out of whatever orbit it was in what water molecules were caused by the vaporization would be lost to space rather than condensing into clouds and raining back down.

    maybe the moon wasn’t always a moon… I doubt it had intelligent or even multi-cellular life… but seriously… what if it wasn’t always a moon?

    Just thinking out loud here…

  49. Robert Carnegie

    49 Chris: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Giant_impact_hypothesis refers to the “favored” but, according to that, imperfect hypothesis that once upon a time, a planet about the size of Earth was struck by another planet the size of Mars, and the outcome was present-day Earth and Moon. Really. Usually the original planets are called Theia and Earth, but of course we don’t know what the people of Theia called it (“It-Was-Nice-Knowing-You”) and I personally feel that current Earth may be different enough to what used to be here to make that name inappropriate too. Maybe call the larger one Ear instead. “One formation theory is that Theia materialized at the L4 or L5 Lagrangian points” relative to Ear, then came unstuck when it got too massive to stay put, and banged into its nearest neighbour. I suppose “materialised” means that a dense field of asteroid-type material in space sucked itself together into a single body and then went on sucking in small objects passing nearby.

    Apparently from simulations this isn’t even unusual, except that compared to other planets, Earth has a whole lot of Moon, proportionately. Gas giant satellites are more(?) than comparable in absolute size, but they didn’t happen that way.

    But then simulations also show that in most star systems the gas giant planets as they form swoop into what Earthmen would consider our personal space and gobble up everything else, so we’re lucky if we only got Theia. (Or, depending on your point of view, Ear.) These are simulations devised after the telescope boys started to find rather a lot of hot super-Jupiters, and suggested to the astrophysicists that there had better be a theory of planetary dynamics that predicted the discovery, now that it had been discovered. I mean, better late than never.

    As for our case, where this didn’t happen, apparently if it had then we wouldn’t be here to discuss it, and the last theory I heard is that in our case a resonance between gas giant orbits arose and the celestial clockwork kind of got jammed, and that’s why the sky didn’t fall on our heads before we were around to see it. But I don’t know if that’s the best current idea.

    Maybe some astronomer could take time during the day to write a handy book about all the possible cosmological disasters and why some of them haven’t happened yet, or did happen and some of us are luckily still here. Call it something like “Fatality from Overhead”. Well, that part needs work.

  50. Dr. Evil

    “The black areas are where the lasers for the Alan Parsons Project are mounted. ”

    Fix’d

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Duj2oZIC8U

  51. I am truly appreciative for quality pictures and for the discusions it will bring in my next class. As usual the answer to anything out of the norm will be from any professor or professional the same answer they learned while in school, I did not discover it or was not allowed to discover it so therefore it does not exist. I as the professor have learned in a book and by another professor that the age of things is as they are stated and even if you have evidence by 100 people, if it is not written by the Astronomical Society as fact, then it just does not exist.

    6 Astronauts have stated that their is no doubt, no question, not even a slight question that we were not only being watched but we were not alone on all our trips into space. Edgar Mitchel. Of course the Professor at NY University stated that the old man has become ill and is trying to sell books. OK, what about the other 5? I am tired of how a discovery made by a life long archaeologist is discounted because he does not hold a piece of paper from the society that controls what is standard and what is not. EGO is the destroyer of science today. We could have a new Trillion dollar industry in space, under water exploration, new energy technology but it is the students, teachers and professionals that are so afraid of even looking at controversy that is part of our entire fall of America. The compartmentalization of information, the control of Public Funds, the use of intimidation to stop intelligent people from going out on a limb and ever make a living if they do question the Elite. So who on this site has the intellect and for site to help move our world forward or will you continue to stand in a corner and ignore what is in your face. Wake up!

  52. I am truly appreciative for quality pictures and for the discussions it will bring in my next class. As usual the answer to anything out of the norm will be from any professor or professional the same answer they learned while in school, I did not discover it or was not allowed to discover it so therefore it does not exist. I as the professor have learned in a book and by another professor that the age of things is as they are stated and even if you have evidence by 100 people, if it is not written by the Astronomical Society as fact, then it just does not exist.

    6 Astronauts have stated that their is no doubt, no question, not even a slight question that we were not only being watched but we were not alone on all our trips into space. Edgar Mitchel. Of course the Professor at NY University stated that the old man has become ill and is trying to sell books. OK, what about the other 5? I am tired of how a discovery made by a life long archaeologist is discounted because he does not hold a piece of paper from the society that controls what is standard and what is not. EGO is the destroyer of science today. We could have a new Trillion dollar industry in space, under water exploration, n!ew energy technology but it is the students, teachers and professionals that are so afraid of even looking at controversy that is part of our entire fall of America. The compartmentalization of information, the control of Public Funds, the use of intimidation to stop intelligent people from going out on a limb and ever make a living if they do question the Elite. So who on this site has the intellect and for site to help move our world forward or will you continue to stand in a corner and ignore what is in your face. Wake up

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