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Leftovers from earlier landings visible in photos from new NASA moon orbiter

WASHINGTON — First-ever NASA photos of the moon show the leftovers from man's exploration 40 years ago.

The photos from space pinpoint equipment left behind from Apollo landings, and even tracks made by astronauts on the moon surface. They were released Friday, in time for the 40th anniversary of the first moon landing on July 20, 1969.

The images are from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, which was launched last month and now circles the moon in search of future landing sites. A photo of the Apollo 11 site shows the Eagle lunar module used by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.

"It was really great to see the hardware sitting on the surface, waiting for us to come back," said Arizona State University scientist Mark Robinson, who runs the camera on the orbiter. "You could actually see the descent module sitting on the surface."

But that's only if you know where to look. NASA helps out by putting a giant arrow on each photo. The lunar landers look to be square white blobs; the Eagle is a fuzzy image near a crater.

NASA landed on the moon six times, but the orbital camera so far has only photographed five landing sites. Apollo 12 will be done later. That leaves Apollo 11 and Apollo 14 through 17. Apollo 13 never landed on the moon because of an explosion on board the ship on the way to the moon.

The Apollo 14 images are the best so far. Taken Wednesday, they show the path astronauts Alan Shepard Jr. and Edgar Mitchell made as they went to and from lander and work site.

Robinson said the route was "a high traffic zone, sort of like when you go in an old building and the carpet is worn down." A similar but lighter path could be seen at the Apollo 17 site.

The photos varied in quality based on how high up the satellite was and the angle of the sun. For Apollo 11, the pictures were from 70 miles above. For Apollo 14, it was six miles closer.

In the next couple of months, as the lunar satellite starts its mission to map the moon for future landing sites for astronauts, it will get much better photos, Robinson said. The mission is a first step in NASA's effort to return humans to the moon by 2020.

Leftovers from earlier landings visible in photos from new NASA moon orbiter 07/17/09 [Last modified: Friday, July 17, 2009 11:02pm]
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