Text size:

  • Small
  • Normal
  • Large
Apollo 17 astronuat Jack Schmitt standing on the surface of the Moon while holding a rake full of rock samples. Time Life Pictures / NASA / Getty Images
Apollo 17 astronuat Jack Schmitt standing on the surface of the Moon while holding a rake full of rock samples. Time Life Pictures / NASA / Getty Images
The Apollo 17 site on the Moon, as see by Nasa's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, with the tracks laid down by the lunar rover clearly visible, along with the last foot trails left on the moon. Reuters/Nasa's Goddard Space Flight Center/ASU/Handout
The Apollo 17 site on the Moon, as see by Nasa's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, with the tracks laid down by the lunar rover clearly visible, along with the last foot trails left on the moon. Reuters/Nasa's Goddard Space Flight Center/ASU/Handout

Still visible after 40 years, the last footprints on the Moon

Images taken by Nasa's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter from between 21 and 24 kilometres up show the astronauts' paths when they walked on the Moon four decades ago, as well as ruts left by a moon buggy.

WASHINGTON // A spacecraft circling the Moon has snapped the sharpest photos ever of the tracks and rubbish left behind by Apollo astronauts in their visits from 1969 to 1972.

Images taken by Nasa's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter from between 21 and 24 kilometres up show the astronauts' paths when they walked on the Moon, as well as ruts left by a moon buggy. Experts could even identify the backpacks astronauts pitched out of their lunar landers before they returned to Earth.

"What we're seeing is a trail," said Mark Robinson, an Arizona State University geology professor and the orbiter's chief scientist. "It's totally awesome."

However, the photos were not close enough to see individual bootprints, Professor Robinson said.

The pictures were taken two weeks ago and show the landing sites for Apollo 12, 14 and 17. The closest images are of the 1972 Apollo 17 site, the last Moon mission.

The Apollo 17 commander, Eugene Cernan, said the photo gives him a chance to revisit those days, "this time with a little nostalgia and disappointment. Nostalgia because those special days are fondly etched in my memory and disappointment because it looks like now we will not be going back within the days I have left on this planet."

Two years ago, images from the same spacecraft from between 48km and 96km out showed fuzzier images. But this year the orbiter dipped down to take about 300,000 more close-ups. The trails left by the astronauts are clear, but the places where backpacks were discarded, Apollo 17's moon buggy, and the bottom parts of the three lunar landers are blurry.

Professor Robinson said: "You have to really look at it for a long time to figure out what you're looking at." For example, when it comes to the moon buggy he said, "if you squint really hard you can resolve the wheels and that the wheels are slightly turned to the left".

At first, scientists thought they had a bit of a mystery: they saw more stuff than they expected. It turned out to be packing material and an insulation blanket, Professor Robinson said.

After 40 years there does not seem to be much moon dust covering the man-made trails. It probably will take about 10 million to 100 million years for dust to cover them, Professor Robinson said.

The photos were released a few days after the debut of the fictional movie Apollo 18 and before tomorrow's planned launch of Nasa's twin robotic spaceships to explore the Moon's gravity.

Online: NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter

Back to the top

More articles


Editor's Picks

 Iranian President Hassan Rouhani greeted by university students as he leaves Sistan University in Sistan and Baluchestan’s provincial capital of Zahedan on Tuesday, April 15, 2014. Maryam Rahmanian for The National

In Iran’s most troubled province, Rouhani hears pleas for change

Hassan Rounani aims to connect with residents of far-flung Sistan and Baluchestan province.

 Prince Bandar bin Sultan in Riyadh on March 3, 2007. Hassan Ammar / AFP Photo

Saudi Prince Bandar promised a victory he could not deliver

Saudi Arabia's controversial intelligence chief stepped down this week after rumours that his policies on Syria had fallen out of favour.

 Iranian President Hassan Rouhani greets supporters after his arrival in Zahedan, the regional capital of Sistan and Baluchestan province on Tuesday, April 15, 2014. During Mr Rouhani's two-day visit, he will tour several other cities and hold meetings with local scholars and entrepreneurs. Maryam Rahmanian for The National

On the road with Hassan Rouhani

Iran's president is touring some of Iran's most underdeveloped provinces. Foreign correspondent Yeganeh Salehi is traveling with him.

 Twitter photo of  Abdel Fattah El Sisi on the campaign trail on March 30. Photo courtesy-Twitter/@SisiCampaign

El Sisi rides a bicycle, kicks off social media storm

The photos and video created a huge buzz across social media networks, possibly a marker of a new era for Egypt.

 Friday is UN Mine Awareness Day and Omer Hassan, who does demining work in Iraqi Kurdistan, is doing all he can to teach people about the dangers posed by landmines. Louise Redvers for The National

A landmine nearly ended Omer’s life but he now works to end the threat of mines in Iraq

Omer Hassan does demining work in Iraqi Kurdistan and only has to show people his mangled leg to underscore the danger of mines. With the world marking UN Mine Awareness Day on Friday, his work is as important as ever as Iraq is one of the most mine-affected countries in the world.

 Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Turkish spiritual leader Fethullah Gulen. AFP Photo

The inner workings of Gulen’s ‘parallel state’

Fethullah Gulen's followers are accused of trying to push Turkey's prime minister from power.

Events

To add your event to The National listings, click here

Get the most from The National