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From an article on CNET by Michelle Starr, February 12, 2015; visualizations by Ernie Wright:

As the Moon orbits the Earth, we only ever see the one side. This is because the moon is tidally locked – a single rotation of its axis takes the same amount of time as a single orbit around the Earth, so that the same side is always facing the Earth. Using its Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, NASA has collated data to reveal what the other side of the Moon looks like (see Section 6.2a, p. 127 and Figure 6-18, p. 133).


Credit: NASA’s Goddard SFC Scientific Visualization Studio

As the Moon goes through its phases, we see it darken and lighten as viewed from Earth. Those phases are the opposite of what the far side of the Moon experiences: when we have a Full Moon, the far side is new; when we have a New Moon, the far side is full. This means that the LRO can observe the far side of the Moon in pretty good detail when it is illuminated by the Sun.

In the years since it launched in 2009, the LRO has sent back hundreds of terabytes of data about the Moon’s far side. What it has found is that the far side of the Moon is quite different from the side we see.

Links: CNET article; more information from NASA’s Scientific Visualization Studio; LRO home.


From a NASA press release, April 18, 2014:

Ground controllers at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California, have confirmed that NASA’s Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) spacecraft impacted the surface of the Moon, as planned, on Thursday, April 17. LADEE lacked fuel to maintain a long-term lunar orbit or continue science operations and was intentionally sent into the lunar surface. The spacecraft’s orbit naturally decayed following the mission’s final low-altitude science phase. (See p. 135.)

Credit: NASA

During impact, engineers believe the LADEE spacecraft, the size of a vending machine, broke apart, with most of the spacecraft’s material heating up several hundred degrees – or even vaporizing – at the surface. Any material that remained is likely buried in shallow craters. At the time of impact, LADEE was traveling at a speed of 3,600 miles per hour.

In early April, the spacecraft was commanded to carry out maneuvers that would lower its closest approach to the lunar surface. The new orbit brought LADEE to altitudes below one mile (two kilometers) above the lunar surface. This is lower than most commercial airliners fly above Earth, enabling scientists to gather unprecedented science measurements.

In the coming months, mission controllers will determine the exact time and location of LADEE’s impact and work with the agency’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) team to possibly capture an image of the impact site. A thorough understanding of the characteristics of our nearest celestial neighbor will help researchers understand other bodies in the solar system, such as large asteroids, Mercury and the moons of outer planets.

Links: full NASA press release; NY Times article; LADEE mission homepage.

Click below to play a YouTube movie of the entire Moon or follow this APOD link. (Credits: LRO, Arizona State U., NASA)

No one, presently, sees the Moon rotate like this. That’s because it is tidally locked to the Earth, showing us only one side. Given modern digital technology, however, combined with many detailed images returned by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), a high resolution virtual Moon rotation movie has now been composed. The time-lapse video starts with the standard Earth view of the Moon. Quickly, though, Mare Orientale, a large crater with a dark center that is difficult to see from the Earth, rotates into view just below the equator. From an entire lunar month condensed into 24 seconds, the video clearly shows that the Earth side (i.e. the near side) of the Moon contains an abundance of dark lunar maria, while the lunar far side is dominated by bright lunar highlands. Two new missions are scheduled to begin exploring the Moon within the year, the first of which is NASA’s Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE). LADEE, which launched early September 2013 will explore the thin and unusual lunar atmosphere. In early December 2013, the Chinese Chang’e 3 is scheduled to launch, a mission that includes a soft lander that will dispatch a robotic rover.