End of an Era, Dawn of Another?

On December 11, 1972 – thirty years ago today – the astronauts of Apollo 17 eased their Lunar Module into a landing, beginning the last human excursion to the Moon. Three days later, Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt blasted off from the lunar surface to rejoin crewmate Ronald Evans in the Command/Service Module. The crew circled the Moon for another forty-eight hours or so, fired the spacecraft’s thruster, and left the Moon behind for the next three decades.

During their brief stay on the Moon, Commander Cernan and geologist Schmitt crisscrossed the local terrain in their Lunar Rover, conducting a variety of experiments and gathering Moon rocks to bring home.

Reliving the Voyage

To commemorate Apollo 17’s anniversary, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center’s Visualization and Analysis Lab has produced a new computer animation inspired by the mission. The 21-second visualization – available for viewing on the world wide web – opens with a shot of the launch pads at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where the Apollo missions started and Space Shuttle missions embark today.

Earth and Moon
Low resolution animation of simulated flight from Cape Canaveral to lunar orbit. Video in Streaming Video and QuickTime Credit: NASA/GSFC Visualization. The visualization was done by Marit Jentoft-Nilsen working for the NASA’s Earth Science Enterprise in the Visualization and Analysis Lab at Goddard Space Flight Center.

As the Saturn V rocket lifts off, first the launch pads and then Florida recede from view, and Earth’s globe fills the frame. This perspective is intended to recall the “Blue Marble” Earth image of South Africa and Antarctica taken by Apollo 17 on December 7, 1972. As the animation continues, the horizon of the Moon comes into view. This visual composition alludes to the famous “Earthrise” photographs snapped by earlier Apollo missions.

Finally, the camera tilts down towards the Moon’s surface as the terrain passes underneath. Although the camera angles and the path that the animation follows represent an artist’s conception, the visualization is constructed entirely from observations made by space missions. The long shot and full-Earth views are rendered from global 250-meter resolution MODIS data from NASA’s Terra and Aqua Satellites. The regional views of Florida are put together from 15-meter resolution NASA/USGS Landsat 7 Satellite data, and the local Kennedy Space Center scene is composited from 1-meter resolution data from the Space Imaging Inc. IKONOS Satellite. The Clementine space probe provided the data used to depict the Moon’s surface.

What’s Next

Thirty year later, there’s a resurgence of interest in returning to the Moon. The European Space Agency (ESA) plans to launch robotic mission to the Moon called SMART-1 in March of next year. The National Research Council has called for a robotic mission to the Moon’s South Pole-Aitken Basin. China also plans a robotic mission to the Moon by 2010, and a human outpost on the Moon by 2020 or 2030.

Scientists John Armstrong and Lloyd Wells of the University of Washington in Seattle and Guillermo Gonzalez of Iowa State University argue for resuming human missions to the Moon to collect not Moon rocks, but Earth rocks. Early in Earth’s history, a rain of comets known as the Late Heavy Bombardment may have blasted bits of Earth’s surface into space; some of the material might now lie strewn across the lunar surface. The rocks might even contain fossil evidence of the earliest life on Earth life, the researchers say. Scientist Kevin Zahnle of NASA Ames Research Center adds that studying the existing collection of Moon rocks returned by Apollo 17 and the five earlier lunar landings could help test techniques for searching for Earth rocks on the Moon. And NASA astrobiologist David McKay of Johnson Space Center has remarked that, to his knowledge, no one has searched the collection of Moon rocks for Earth minerals.

Related Web Pages

Commemorative animation of Apollo 17 flight from launch pad to lunar orbit. (NASA/GSFC Visualization )

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