US: Researchers at NASA are creating a topographic map of the Moon’s complex, heavily cratered landscape using Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO).
“LRO dataset is being used to make digital elevation and terrain maps that will be a fundamental reference for future scientific and human exploration missions to the moon,” said Dr. Gregory Neumann of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “We already have nearly 3 billion data points from the Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter on board the LRO spacecraft, with near-uniform longitudinal coverage. We expect to continue to make measurements at this rate through the next two years of the science phase of the mission and beyond. Near the poles, we expect to provide near-GPS-like navigational capability as coverage is denser due to the spacecraft’s polar orbit.”
The Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter (LOLA) works by propagating a single laser pulse through a Diffractive Optical Element that splits it into five beams. These beams then strike and are backscattered from the lunar surface. From the return pulse, the LOLA electronics determines the time of flight which, accounting for the speed of light, provides a precise measurement of the range from the spacecraft to the lunar surface. Range measurements, combined with accurate tracking of the spacecraft’s location, are used to build a map revealing the contours of the lunar landscape. The five beams create a two-dimensional spot pattern that unambiguously reveals slopes. LOLA will also measure the spreading of the return pulse to get the surface roughness and the change in the transmitted compared to the return energy of the pulse to determine surface reflectance.
“The positional errors of image mosaics of the lunar far side, where direct spacecraft tracking – the most accurate — is unavailable, have been one to ten kilometres (about 0.62 to 6.2 miles),” said Neumann. “We’re beating these down to the level of 30 meters (almost 100 feet) or less spatially and one meter (almost 3.3 feet) vertically. At the poles, where illumination rarely provides more than a glimpse of the topography below the crater peaks, we found systematic horizontal errors of hundreds of meters (hundreds of yards) as well.” In terms of coverage, the nearly three billion range measurements so far by LRO compare to about eight million to nine million each from three recent international lunar missions, according to Neumann. “They were limited to a mile or so between individual data points, whereas our measurements are spaced about 57 meters (about 187 feet) apart in five adjacent tracks separated by about 15 meters (almost 50 feet).”
“The LOLA data also allow us to define the current and historical illumination environment on the moon,” said Neumann. Lunar illumination history is important for discovering areas that have been shaded for long periods.
LRO and LOLA were built and are managed by NASA Goddard. The research was funded by NASA’s Exploration Systems Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington.