While a handful of images have become iconic of the space age -- the picture of Buzz Aldrin on the moon and this full Earth taken by the crew of Apollo 17, for example -- a trove of unknown yet equally powerful images exists, albeit typically buried in archives. Last week, however, a few made their way to the surface. The University College London published a collection of rare images of spaceflight’s history, listed here, and they mark some incredibly important moments in our exploration of space.
We’re used to seeing high resolution images of the moon; modern telescopes and cameras on lunar orbiters have given us some spectacularly detailed maps that early 20th century astronomers likely never imagined. In lieu of images, these astronomers hand-drew maps based on what they could see with the naked eye through a telescope (on the rare occasion astronomers could use a photographic plate to image an object).
That’s what Walter Goodacre, former president of the Lunar section of the British Astronomical Association, did. He drew an incredibly detailed map of the moon 5.8 feet across, the smallest features on which are a few miles across. The map was subsequently published in book form in 1910 and eventually ended up in the hands of the University of London Observatory, and UCL has released it digitally, both in plates -- the one here features Apollo 11's landing site, the Sea of Tranquility or Mare Tranquilitatis -- and as a single, explorable map. Browse a high-resolution version.
In preparation for the unmanned Surveyor and manned Apollo lunar landing missions, NASA launched a series of photoreconnaissance missions to look for suitable landing sites. The first, called Lunar Orbiter 1, launched on Aug. 10, 1966. It settled into orbit around the moon’s equator a little over 90 hours later. Between Aug. 18 and 29, the spacecraft photographed the moon, eventually sending back 42 high resolution and 187 medium resolution frames covering 3.1 million square miles of the moon’s surface. And on Aug. 23, it looked back to the Earth and took this image, the first shot of our home planet as seen from another world. Browse a high-resolution version.
In 2008, NASA reprocessed Lunar Orbiter 1’s historic but noisy image of the Earth from the Moon. The result was among the images released by UCL last week. The scan lines have been completely removed and the resolution is drastically better. Interestingly, even an old image can be useful to scientists when it’s renewed like this. Browse a high-resolution version.
The moon was one of NASA’s two main targets in the early space age; the other was our planetary neighbor Mars. The first American missions to the red planet, the Mariner missions, were flybys. For a followup mission, NASA turned its attention to landing on the Martian surface. The agency achieved this goal in 1976 with the twin Viking landers, which not only sent back the first usable data from the red planet, they also looked in greater detail at surface features the Mariner spacecraft had only seen in passing.
This is the original print showing Ascraeus Mons as seen by the Viking 1 orbiter. First spotted by Mariner 9 in 1972, Ascraeus Mons is an extinct volcano more than twice as high as Mount Everest. Browse a high-resolution version
The twin Voyager spacecraft, which are now rushing towards the edge of our Solar System, were some of the first to return detailed images of distant planets and moons. We’re used to seeing them processed in such a way that recovers details that weren’t available at the time. We see moons color balanced and often made whole through composite images. But that’s not how they came back from the spacecraft.
The Voyager probes, like many missions launched before the 1980s, used vidicons, a type of analogue detector related to analogue TV cameras. And the pictures didn’t come back stitched. In the days before powerful computer graphics software, creating a mosaic meant printing each picture out and putting them together like a puzzle. This image from UCL’s collection shows what that process looked like. This is a full image of Jupiter’s moon Io being assembled from individual frames with hand-written notes and computer printouts of technical information relating to the photographs. Browse a high-resolution version
Another of the hand-assembled mosaics, here is a composite image of Jupiter’s moon Ganymede in the making using data from the Voyager 2 spacecraft. Voyager 2 made it’s closest approach to Jupiter on March 5, 1979, before going on to visit Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. It remains the only spacecraft to have visited the two outermost planets of our Solar System. Browse a high-resolution version
In spite of Venus' crushing atmosphere 94 times as thick as the Earth’s composed of corrosive gases and its scalding surface temperature, the Soviet Union managed to land a series of probes on the planet in the 1970s. They couldn’t last long in that environment, but these landers did return data and images from the surface of Venus. This recently released image shows the view from Venera 14, which landed on March 5, 1982.
Visible in the foreground is one of the lander’s science payloads, a probe on the end of a metal arm that dropped down to penetrate the surface and measure the hardness of the soil. On Venera 14, this experiment failed; the probe penetrator hit the discarded camera lens cap instead of the ground. Browse a high-resolution version