Newly Restored “Picture of the Century”: Lunar Orbiter 2’s View of Copernicus

By Keith Cowing
March 21, 2009
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Newly Restored “Picture of the Century”: Lunar Orbiter 2’s View of Copernicus

The Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project (LOIRP) has released another iconic image taken during the Lunar Orbiter program in the 1960’s. This image, which shows the dramatic landscape within the crater Copernicus was often referred to as the “picture of the century” by many people at the time of its original public release in 1966.

This image was taken by the Lunar Orbiter 2 spacecraft at 7:05 p.m. EST on 24 November 1966 from an altitude of 28.4 miles above the lunar surface, 150 miles due south of Copernicus. At the time this image was originally released most views of the lunar surface involved looking straight down. Little, if any, sense of the true elevation of lunar surface features was usually available. This photo changed that perception by showing the Moon to be a world with tremendous topography – some of it Earth-like, much of it decidedly un-earth-like.

According to Wikipedia: “In 1966 the crater was photographed from an oblique angle by Lunar Orbiter 2 as one of 12 “housekeeping” pictures that were taken to advance the roll of film between possible astronaut landing sites being surveyed. At the time this detailed image of the lunar surface was termed by NASA Scientist Martin Swetnick and subsequently quoted by Time magazine as “one of the great pictures of the century.”

Time magazine said (“A New Look at Copernicus“): “Except for the black sky in the background, the photograph might have been mistaken for a composite of the scenic grandeur of Grand Canyon and the barren desolation of the Badlands of South Dakota. But when it was flashed unexpectedly onto a screen at a meeting of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics in Boston last week, sophisticated space scientists and engineers recognized the terrain immediately. It was a spectacular close up shot of lunar landscape. That photograph of the moon’s Crater of Copernicus, said NASA Scientist Martin Swetnick, is “one of the great pictures of the century.”

The following image is an interim version, with reprocessing and enhancements being made constantly. A larger, raw version (2.2 GB in size) is now online at NASA’s Lunar Science Institute. Larger view.

If you compare this new image with LPI’s high res version you can clearly see that this new image shows multiple striations in the surface, small boulders, landslides, shadows and a myriad of fine details simply not visible in the original. The LOIRP currently estimates that the resolution of this image is less than 1 meter/pixel. Larger view.

Dennis Wingo, co-lead of the LOIRP will make a presentation on this image and the LOIRP at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference on Monday, 23 March 2009 at 8:30 am (session 102)

The LOIRP, funded by NASA’s Exploration Mission Systems Directorate and NASA’s Innovative Partnership’s Program, with support from Odyssey Moon, Skycorp Inc., SpaceRef Interactive Inc., ACES, and the NASA Lunar Science Institute, is housed at NASA Ames Research Center at Moffet Field, CA. This project has utilized original analog data tapes and restored tape drives to digitize original Lunar Orbiter project imagery. Utilizing computer technology unavailable at the time the images were originally taken, LOIRP has been able to produce images which greatly exceed the resolution of the images as they were first seen in 1966 and 1967.

The first image released by the LOIRP, the famous “earthrise image”, was made public in November 2008. It is anticipated with the release of this latest image of Copernicus, and further restoration of the original 40 year old hardware, that the pace of additional image releases will now increase.

Further information on the LOIRP can be found at http://www.moonviews.com/

SpaceRef co-founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.