A space-age mystery to celebrate Apollo's anniversary

By Phil Plait | July 21, 2011 11:30 am

Last night, at 02:56 UTC, it was the 42nd anniversary of humans putting a bootprint on another world. Before Apollo 11 touched down on the Moon, though, NASA and the USSR sent a fleet of unmanned probes there. Since that time we’ve sent many more, including the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, one of my favorite spacecraft of all time. It takes amazing high-res images of the Moon… and to celebrate today’s anniversary, they released this mysterious picture:

Cooool. Click to enlunenate.

This image is about 400 meters across, and shows an impact site with two lobes of material laid down to the sides. This butterfly-shape is a clear indication of a low-angle impact; it’s seen on many bodies in the solar system including the Moon, Mars, and even Earth (though the physics of exactly how the bi-lobed patterns form is still not well understood). Features like this are very rare… but it’s known that when a satellite orbit decays, it will impact at a low angle.

As the LRO site notes, in October 1967, the Lunar Orbiter 2 spacecraft impacted the lunar surface, possibly very near this spot. Could this be the final resting ground of an early NASA robotic explorer? It’s hard to say. When something hits hard enough to excavate material, it’s common to see ejected junk of different brightnesses, and here we see the dark patterns overlaid on a brighter surface. If that’s the impact area, though, the size of the impact looks too big for the mass and speed of the probe. Maybe it coincidentally hit a brighter area, but that stretches credulity, given the darker area all around.

So what happened here? The folks at LRO are planning follow-up observations to see if they can get pictures at a different Sun illumination angle, which will make any crater easier to spot. That might clear things up.

Or it might not. The Moon is the nearest astronomical object in the heavens by far, but it also has 38 million square kilometers of surface to explore! That’s four times the size of the Unites States… and LRO sees it at a resolution of roughly a half a meter. That’s a whole lot of pixels, and a whole lot of landscape in which to hide fun little mysteries. I hope there are many, many more.


Related posts:

Majestic mountains of the Moon
A flower bloom on the Moon
Lunar craters young and old
Lunar rock and roll

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, Pretty pictures

Comments (21)

  1. Bob

    That’s where the moon women test their boosters.

  2. Bobby

    Huh, when I saw the picture, I thought it was some sort of tunnel formation, the dark areas being the lower part, while the connecting white ones – the bridge above it. I’m still having a hard time picturing it as something else. I hope we get a different illumination angle one soon.

  3. QuietDesperation

    That’s where the moon women test their boosters.

    I got their booste-

    [POST TERMINATED. CARRIER LOST.]

  4. Gavin Flower

    Post #3 “[POST TERMINATED. CARRIER LOST.]”

    Is obviously fake, for if it was real, the carrier would be lost before the post was terminated! :-)

  5. bouch

    First thing I saw was an “alien face”, with those two large, oval, black eyes and a slightly downturned frown. So, now we have the “man in the moon” to go with the face on mars. Where’s Richard Hoagland?

  6. DrFlimmer

    It’s definitely made of GLASS or something VERY reflective!!! You can tell, because it’s DARK!!! This implies NATURALLY that it reflects all the light in one direction – AWAY FROM THE CAMERA!!!
    It must be a COVER of something!!!!!! POTENTIALLY the SECRET base of the US ARMY where they HIDE all the ALIEN SPACESHIPS!!!!!!!1111111!!!!!!
    Forget AREA 51… it’s all on the MOON!!!

    ——————————–

    Perhaps, I should work on my hoax skills a little more…. :-D

  7. feh

    First thing I saw were giant nostrils sucking in entire galaxies and for a moment I was terrified. Then I read the post and calmed down, it’s just the surface of the moon.

  8. bazza

    “400 meters across”

    Are these water meters? Multi-meters? Or did you in fact mean the unit of measurement known worldwide as the ‘metre’?

  9. Tyler Durden

    Would any debris from Lunar Orbiter 2 survive if that was the spot? Is LRO looking for the Surveyors (especially 2 and 4 – the latter may have soft-landed) and the Soviet Lunas?

  10. OverHere

    Metres is/are English OverHere we don’t spell English
    although some may say we only attempt to speak it.

  11. Obviously that’s the spot where the von Neumann probe of a galactic civilization touched down four million years ago. This clearly calls for a manned lunar mission to investigate, but I do hope they’ll be careful not to set off the damned alarm this time!

  12. Gary Miles

    Holy Crap! It’s Underdog!

  13. David

    It kinda looks like Deadpool.

  14. The Moon is the nearest astronomical object in the heavens by far, but it also has 38 million square kilometers of surface to explore! That’s four times the size of the Unites States… and LRO sees it at a resolution of roughly a half a meter. That’s a whole lot of pixels, and a whole lot of landscape in which to hide fun little mysteries. I hope there are many, many more.

    I hope we get to see humans land again and explore this and so much more one day. There were only ever six short missions with humans walking and wandering across the lunar regolith in a few small locations for very short timespans.

    Luna~wise we have so much still to see and learn human exploration~wise.

    – The Lunar Farside yet to be visited.
    – The full lunar night and day cycles yet to be experienced.
    – The Lunar poles have yet to be visited in person.
    – There’s yet to be the first woman on the Moon.
    – Or the first astronomer on the Moon.

    Plus of course the mystery spots like these.

    Once I fully expected to see these “firsts”, these places studied by astronauts in my lifetime. Now I’m not so sure. :-(

  15. Muzz

    We’re so hopelessly anthro-centric that we can’t see what is really going on here.
    See, whenever we spot some celestial form that looks vaguely like a human eye everyone falls about calling it The Eye of God or some rubbish. We never think that our eyes are not the only eyes in the universe and here we see another one.
    The moon is actually a giant cephalopod of some kind. And at last the stars are right for it to awaken!
    All praise to our betentacled overlord!

  16. Lars Bruchmann

    “Metre” is French and English. In Germany we say “Meter” (which sort of sounds like ‘mater’ instead of the English ‘meeter’.) The Russians say ‘myetrov’.

  17. Nigel Depledge

    Bazza (9) said:

    “400 meters across”

    Are these water meters? Multi-meters? Or did you in fact mean the unit of measurement known worldwide as the ‘metre’?

    Heh.

    You should know that the USAians reject the Francophilic “-re” ending to many words. Where British English has, for example, “centre” and “theatre” (after the French), USAian English has “center” and “theater”. And so on.

    At least some of these words were changed in England to match the French spelling in a wave of Francophilia that swept the nation in the 18th century (IIUC). This post-dates the founding of the Colonies that later became the USA. So it is possible that some words of this type are more “authentic” with the USAian spelling than the British spelling.

    But that doesn’t make them right, right? ;-)

  18. Sawdust Sam

    @Nigel – Possibly, but Noah Webster was responsible for many of the orthographic differences between American and British English. Some say this was simply because of Revolutionary zeal (he didn’t like the English), but he claimed he wanted to simplify spelling. What he managed to do was substitute one set of odd and inconsistent spelling rules for another.
    Sorry – well off topic.

  19. Nigel Depledge

    @ Sawdust Sam (19) –
    Oh, yes, I had forgotten about Webster’s contribution to American variant spelling.

  20. mfumbesi

    I saw nostrils…

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