The Breathtaking NASA Camera Setup Behind Your Favorite Footage of the Moon

From Earth, the moon is a pale white — sometimes deep red — lantern that illuminates nights with its glow. But up close, its a dramatic, craggy landscape dotted with thousands of craters that make it look like an extraterrestrial wasteland. NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has captured all of that in stunning detail.

The satellite has orbited the moon for more than ten years, capturing in the process some of the most intricate footage of the celestial body. The LRO packs an array of seven distinct camera sensors to capture every nook and cranny of the lunar surface. The visual data collected can then be stitched together to create breathtaking time-lapse videos of the moon, like the one seen above.

NASA published the video that was edited by its Scientific Visualization Studio and published in July of last year (it recently resurfaced during the build-up to the Super Blood Wolf Moon on the January 23). It’s a perfect example of how the intersection of aerospace engineering and camera technology can bring us close to space, even when we’re down here on Earth.


Here’s each piece of tech that made this video possible:

1. Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter

LOLA is the main reason the video above is so crystal clear. The sensor can detect slopes, surface texture, altitude, and generate a hight-resolution 3D map of the area. It can even shed light on permanently shadowed areas of the moon by analyzing differences in elevation.

2. Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera

Even though the LRO orbits the moon at an altitude of 31 miles (50 km), this piece of tech is able to take black and white images with high resolutions as close as 3.3 feet (1 meter) above the moon’s surface. It’s essentially the eagle-eye of the satellite.

3. Cosmic Ray Telescope for the Effects of Radiation

Aptly nicknamed CRaTER, this component picks up on the radiation on the lunar surface. Its main role is to help determine the environmental impacts of radiation from the sun and to guide NASA as it develops spacesuits and other equipment that can withstand the sun’s damaging rays.

Image of the LRO being constructed.


4. Diviner Lunar Radiometer Experiment

The DLRE handles all of the thermal mapping using infrared light beams. It can detect slight dips in surface temperature, which could help lead to the discovery of ice deposits. In that way, the DLRE not only adds detail to imagery, but it also serves to identify potentially hazardous landing areas that are frozen over.

5. Lyman Alpha Mapping Project

The LAMP hits the lunar surface with ultraviolet light to reveal areas of the moon that are cloaked in shadows. This served to illuminate the deep, dark craters seen in the video.

6. Lunar Exploration Neutron Detector

This component carefully maps the hydrogen content of the lunar surface. Its main purpose is to detect the ice and slight changes in radiation that serve to add detail to time lapse footage and pinpoint areas where exploration efforts should be focused.

7. Mini-RF Technology Demonstration

Finally, the Mini-RF is primarily onboard to hunt for surface or subsurface ice deposits. But it can also take high-res pictures of shadowy parts of the moon.

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