Flags at the Olympics may come and go, but there’s one U.S. record that remains unchallenged. New images from NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter show all but one of the U.S. flags planted during the six Apollo missions to the lunar surface are still standing.
“I was a bit surprised that the flags survived the harsh ultraviolet light and temperatures of the lunar surface, but they did,” LRO researcher Mark Robinson posted on the project’s website.
“What they look like is another question,” he added.
Without atmosphere or wind to contend with, the flags seem to have remained largely undisturbed for more than four decades. The one exception is the flag planted by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin during the the first moon landing on July 20, 1969.
Aldrin had reported that the flag was blown over by exhaust from their spacecraft as it lifted off to return to their orbiting mother ship for the return trip home.
“It looks like he was correct,” Robinson wrote.
Scientists figured out the rest of the flags were still standing by studying LRO images taken at different times of the day. The flags, as well as other items left on the moon, cast shadows in different positions depending on the angle of the sun.
Here’s a movie the LRO team made of the Apollo 12 landing site. Watch the flag’s shadow make a circle:
Between 1969 and 1972, the United States landed 12 astronauts on the surface of the moon. No one has been back since. Better pictures of the landing sites might be coming in the next few years as contenders in the Google Lunar X Prize aim to put a new generation of rovers and other spacecraft on the surface of the moon. There’s bonus bucks for imaging historic sites.
Image: Top, Apollo astronaut John Young salutes the Stars and Stripes while demonstrating the moon’s low gravity with a jump. Behind him are the Apollo 16 lunar module and lunar rover. Middle, Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter’s view of the Apollo 17 landing site, which left behind another flag, descent stage and car, among other items. Credit: NASA/Charlie Duke; NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center/Arizona State University.