Walk in the astronauts' footsteps as you explore the places they visited in the heyday of Apollo program. Use these helpful maps to start you on your way.
We all love dark moonless skies, but let's face it, the Moon's out two weeks a month. How can you ignore it? You've doubtless observed craters and mountain ranges and probed for volcanic features like rills and domes. But here and there among the nooks and crannies, you'll find six of the most remarkable locales on the Moon — the Apollo landing sites. They're the only places where humanity has achieved one of its oldest dreams and "touched the stars".
As you're well aware, no telescope on Earth can see the leftover descent stages of the Apollo Lunar Modules or anything else Apollo-related. Not even the Hubble Space Telescope can discern evidence of the Apollo landings. The laws of optics define its limits.
Hubble's 94.5-inch mirror has a resolution of 0.024″ in ultraviolet light, which translates to 141 feet (43 meters) at the Moon's distance. In visible light, it's 0.05″, or closer to 300 feet. Given that the largest piece of equipment left on the Moon after each mission was the 17.9-foot-high by 14-foot-wide Lunar Module, you can see the problem.
Did I say problem? No problem for NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), which can dip as low as 31 miles (50 km) from the lunar surface, close enough to image each landing site in remarkable detail.
LRO's orbital imagery and photos taken in situ by the Apollo astronauts will serve to illuminate our ramblings from one Apollo site to the next. All the landing sites lie on the near side of the Moon and were chosen to explore different geologic terrains. Astronauts bagged 842 pounds (382 kg) of Moon rocks, which represented everything from mare basalts to ancient highland rocks to impact-shattered rocks called breccias. Apollo 12 astronauts even found the first meteorite ever discovered on another world, the Bench Crater carbonaceous chondrite.
With the Moon waxing this week and next, the advancing line of lunar sunrise will expose one site after another beginning with Apollo 17 in the Moon's eastern hemisphere and finishing with Apollos 12 and 14 in the western. To see each locale, a 4-inch or larger telescope magnifying 75× or higher will get the job done. But the larger the scope and higher the power, the closer you'll be able to pinpoint each landing site and better able to visualize the scene.
Below are the approximate times and current dates after New Moon when each landing locale first becomes fully illuminated by the Sun:
* Apollos 17 and 11: Six days past New (April 24)
* Apollo 16: Seven days, or First Quarter (April 25)
* Apollo 15: Eight days (April 26)
* Apollos 12 and 14: Ten days (April 28)
The base images for all the sites are photographs taken by the LRO. I encourage you to drop by the ACT-REACT QuickMap site, which features a zoomable lunar map of LRO photos that will practically take you down to the lunar surface. Click the "paper stack" icon and uncheck Sunlit Region to see a fully-illuminated Moon, no matter the current phase. Checking the Nomenclature box will bring up the names of craters, rills and many other features. More details about each of the LRO Apollo photos can be found here.
Following are maps for pinpointing each Apollo location. South is up, and clicking on the images will link you to higher resolution versions. Time to strap on your boots and follow in the footsteps of the first people to walk on the Moon.
Speaking of landings . . . space exploration has proven difficult even with robotic explorers, and nowhere is this more apparent than on Mars, where historically, more landings have failed than succeeded. Download our free ebook, Mars Landings: Past & Present, and you'll also receive our weekly e-newsletter with the latest news from the world of astronomy.