With planetary celebrities like Jupiter, Saturn and Pluto pulling the celestial spotlight in recent years, it's easy to forget that one of the most beautiful objects in the solar system lies less than 250,000 miles away.
NASA recently dished up a reminder about the stark wonder that is our moon with a gorgeous new tour highlighting some of our closest neighbor's more interesting hot spots. The detailed 3-D imagery used in the five-minute short below comes courtesy of the agency's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), a robotic spacecraft that has mapped over 98 percent of the lunar surface since 2009.
According to Mark Robinson, principal investigator for the imaging system on the LRO, the spacecraft contains three cameras, a single Wide Angle Camera (WAC) and two Narrow Angle Cameras (NAC).
"The WAC was designed to image the whole moon at moderate resolution in seven colors (ultraviolet and visible wavelengths) and provide stereo overlap for making a global topographic map," he told White Wall magazine. "The Narrow Angle Cameras were designed to give human-scale detail to the surface for planning scientifically engaging and safe landing areas."
To date, the LRO has captured more than 625 terabytes of imagery and data on the moon, a record-breaking feat that has surpassed all other planetary missions combined. In addition to tens of thousands of newly discovered impact craters, the LRO has also detected more cliffs formed by relatively recent tectonic activity. Incredibly, the presence of these geologic features mean the moon is actually smaller than it was before.
"We estimate these cliffs, called lobate scarps, formed less than a billion years ago, and they could be as young as a hundred million years," said Dr. Thomas Watters of the Center for Earth and Planetary Studies at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum in a NASA blog post. "Based on the size of the scarps, we estimate the distance between the moon's center and its surface shrank by about 300 feet."
Robinson, who recently organized a photo exhibit of imagery from the LRO at the Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., hopes images and videos of the moon inspire people to better appreciate the celestial wonder just over our heads.
"To many people the moon is simply a beautiful silvery disc visible in the night sky, but they have no idea what the lunar landscape is really like," he added to White Wall. "The Air and Space Museum receives nearly 10 million visitors a year from all over the world; it is my hope this small set of LROC images will make the moon a real place for many. A place of complex geology, a place that is still changing, a place of opportunity — a whole world that is awaiting our return."