When the Apollo astronauts visited the moon from 1969 to 1972, they left something on the lunar surface in addition to their footprints: trash.
Now a NASA spacecraft has circled the moon and snapped the first-ever photos of those footprints and the astronauts' 40-year-old trash.
The Associated Press reports that the images, shot by NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter from 13 to 15 miles up, distinctly show the paths the astronauts took as they walked on the moon, as well as ruts left by a moon buggy. Experts could also identify the backpacks that astronauts threw out of their lunar landers before they returned to Earth.
"What we're seeing is a trail," Arizona State University geology professor Mark Robinson, the orbiter's chief scientist, told AP. "It's totally awesome."
Taken in August, the photos show the landing sites for Apollo 12, 14 and 17; however, the best images are of the 1972 Apollo 17 landing site, which was NASA's last mission to the moon. While the trails left by the astronauts can be seen clearly, the places where the backpacks were discarded and the moon buggy from Apollo 17 are a little fuzzy.
"You have to really look at it for a long time to figure out what you're looking at," Robinson explained to AP. 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."
Even though it's been 40 years since those trails were made, there isn't much moon dust covering them. Robinson estimates it will take at least 10 million years and possibly as many as 100 million years for lunar dust to cover them.
Apollo 17 Commander Eugene Cernan wrote in an e-mail to The Associated Press that the photo gives him a chance to revisit those days. It's a "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."
--From the Editors at Netscape