Half a century ago, in February and June 1966, robotic spacecraft first landed on the Moon. I vividly remember those events from my days as a 14-year-old space buff. On February 3, the Soviet Union’s Luna 9 thumped down on the vast lava plain known as Oceanus Procellarum (Ocean of Storms), after a number of failed attempts. A Soviet stamp shows its landing configuration, which used air bags to cushion its fall. On the right is the first picture transmitted, from the turret camera in the cylinder on top.
Scientific images can rival those of the most talented artists, a fact that is now on display in A New Moon Rises at our Museum in Washington, DC. Take, for example, an image of Reiner Gamma, a beautiful and strange feature on the Moon that looks as though a tadpole has been painted across the flat surface of Oceanus Procellarum. The image demonstrates the phenomenon of lunar swirls – bright patterns that some scientists believe may result from the solar wind striking the lunar soil. A localized magnetic field anomaly may have given this swirl its peculiar shape. The photo is densely packed with scientific information.
One of my biggest joys of the winter season is receiving holiday cards from my friends and family. On the other hand, I am terrible about sending cards myself. Imagine being Dick Konter, who had promised over 800 people that he would write to them while on a polar expedition to Antarctica!
Apollo artifacts have begun to receive increased scrutiny in light of recent discussions about returning humans to the Moon and the upcoming 50th anniversary of the historic Apollo missions. What did astronauts of the 1960s and 1970s bring back from the Moon? What was left behind? And how can we verify the authenticity of any of those objects if they have been or will be recovered?
Planetary science is one of those fields of research where you can always count on being surprised. The remarkable terrain of Pluto and Charon in images being sent back by the New Horizons spacecraft certainly qualifies. One of my all-time big surprises is from a recent discovery on an object much closer to home—the Moon.