NASA's LADEE Moon Orbiter Snaps First Lunar Photos

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Last month our attention-hounding moon photobombed SDO’s pictures of the sun, and now it’s gotten in the way of yet another robot spacecraft’s view: NASA’s Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer, aka LADEE, which was just trying to take some nice pictures of the stars. What gives, moon?

ANALYSIS: Watch the Sun Get Photobombed by the Moon

Actually these are images of the Moon intentionally captured by LADEE’s star tracker cameras on Feb. 8, 2014, at 23:45 UTC (6:45 p.m. ET). The star tracker instrument is a wide-angle camera that’s used by the spacecraft to determine its orientation in space based on the known positions of background stars. Star trackers aren’t specifically designed for taking pretty pictures of things like planets and moons “but they can sometimes provide exciting glimpses of the lunar terrain,” according to LADEE project manager Butler Hine.

The five images of the moon captured on Feb. 8 are the first ones to be downlinked by the LADEE team.

Taken at one-minute intervals while the spacecraft was traveling along its 156-mile-high equatorial orbit at a velocity of about 60 miles/minute (3,600 mph), the images show various craters, mountain ranges, and lava plains on the lunar surface.

ANALYSIS: When LRO Met LADEE: One Moon Orbiter Images Another

Although the images look pretty well-lit, they were actually taken over the lunar night side. All illumination is coming from reflected light off the Earth — which, coincidentally, is why the stars are visible. If the spacecraft had been on the sunlit side of the moon, the glare would have been much too bright for its camera to resolve any stars. (Cue the Apollo conspiracy theories in three… two… one…)

You can view all the latest images from LADEE on NASA’s mission site here.

The Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer launched aboard a Minotaur V rocket on Sept. 6, 2013, from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Its 160-day mission is to designed study the effects of lunar dust on the moon’s thin atmosphere.

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