Forty years later, we’re about to see what the moonwalkers left behind.
- By Tony Reichhardt
- Air & Space magazine, September 2008
NASA/Panorama assembled by R. Farwell for the Apollo Lunar Surface Journal
(Page 2 of 2)
After landing, Astrobotic’s rover will have just 14 days—a lunar day—to reach the Apollo 11 site and take pictures. Equipping the robot to withstand the frigid, two-week lunar night would have complicated the engineering and driven up the cost. So this will be a short, focused sprint to Tranquillity Base. The rover moves at “about a human walking pace,” says Gump, and will have to reach its destination before nightfall, so success requires a precision landing. The team expects to come down about half a mile from its target, with a precision measured in meters—unprecedented accuracy for a robotic planetary lander.
This is where another Astrobotic partner, Raytheon, comes in. The company built the Navy missile that intercepted and destroyed a military reconnaissance satellite falling from orbit last February. Astrobotic will license the Raytheon “digital scene matching” technology used in cruise missiles—which compares real-time pictures of the looming target with photos stored in an onboard computer—to ensure precise navigation.
Another serious contender to win the Google prize is Quantum3, based in Vienna, Virginia, and led by NASA veterans including Courtney Stadd, the agency’s former chief of staff, and Liam Sarsfield, its former deputy chief engineer. Quantum3 is counting on a new method of landing that Stadd says is different from what other teams are using. Then, instead of rolling on wheels, the lander will “hop” around the surface with small rocket blasts. The price tag, says Stadd, is much lower than $100 million, but is still more than the Google prize money. Like Astrobotic, Quantum3 is heading for the Apollo 11 site. As of May, Stadd still hoped his team could make it there by the 40th anniversary, in July 2009.
All the proposed traffic around Tranquillity Base makes some in the space community worry that the historic Apollo sites will get trampled. Beth O’Leary, a New Mexico State University anthropologist who has led a campaign, so far unsuccessful, to declare the Apollo 11 site a national historic landmark, is concerned that the robots could inadvertently destroy a priceless artifact. Despite the best intentions of the X Prize teams, she says, “it’s untried technology.”
So far, it’s a controversy without much argument. “Our top priority is protecting Apollo 11 from any disturbance,” says Gump. “We’re not rolling over any footprints.” Astrobotic’s rover will stay outside the perimeter of Armstrong and Aldrin’s farthest travels, he says. Pictures of the lander will be taken from a “respectful distance” with a telephoto lens.
Gump hasn’t given much thought to what the pictures will show. But he looks forward to the adventure playing out on live TV, “like opening Al Capone’s vault.”
Might the photos, like the vault, prove disappointing? There’s a chance—a very remote one—that the lander has been destroyed by a meteoroid. We know of at least one Apollo artifact that’s still intact, though, right where Aldrin left it on July 21, 1969. Tom Murphy and his colleagues at the University of California at San Diego still interact with it regularly. Every few nights, they point a laser at a quartz prism on the surface. Then the scientists time the beam that bounces back, a measurement useful for gravitational physics studies. In the two years he’s been pinging the Apollo retro-reflectors, Murphy has become increasingly puzzled. Despite the exquisite sensitivity of his instrument on Earth, the signal that bounces back from the moon is 10 times weaker than it should be. After ruling out other explanations, Murphy has come up with a tentative theory: The reflectors left on the moon have degraded over time. Maybe, he thinks, they have been lightly etched by all those sharp dust grains bouncing around for years on the lunar surface. If so, the once-pristine glass may now be frosted, which would explain the loss in signal strength.
It’s the kind of thing NASA engineers planning the next lunar outpost would love to know. The rest of us just want to find out what happened to the flag. We may not have long to wait.
Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin left behind 66 items at Tranquillity Base, from their removable lunar overshoes (which actually stamped the iconic bootprints in the dust) to a “urine collection assembly, large” and sick bag (presumably unused — none of the Apollo 11 astronauts reported throwing up during the mission). Armstrong and Aldrin stuffed personal items in a large bag and threw it overboard just before leaving. Other objects still on the surface include tools; a TV camera, its stand, and cable; and a clothesline-like contraption for hoisting equipment back into the lander at the end of the moonwalk. The astronauts also left a mission patch memorializing the astronauts killed in the Apollo 1 launch pad fire; medals honoring Soviets Yuri Gagarin, the first human in space, and Vladimir Komarov, the first person to die during a space mission; a silicon disk etched with messages from world leaders; and a small, gold olive branch as a sign of peace.