Space & Innovation

Rocket Smash! Apollo 16 Booster Crater Found

Look at that fresh debris on the moon! It's the result of a smack-down from a rocket that left Earth 44 years ago, carrying the Apollo 16 astronauts to the lunar surface.

Look at that fresh debris on the moon! It's the result of a smack-down from a rocket that left Earth 44 years ago, carrying the Apollo 16 astronauts to the lunar surface.

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What you're looking at is a new Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter discovery image that finally shows the remains of a part of the Saturn V rocket that hefted John Young, Charlie Duke and Ken Mattingly towards the moon in 1972. This is the third stage of the rocket, called the Saturn IVB. Its role was to propel the astronauts out of Earth orbit and towards the moon.

Starting with failed moon mission Apollo 13 in 1970, NASA directed the Saturn IVBs to impact the moon. The energy of the impacts were measured by seismometers the astronauts left on the moon, to reveal more about the moon's inner structure.

PHOTOS: Spectacular Apollo Photos Inspired Moon Science

John Young tests the lunar rover at high speed during Apollo 16, in April 1972. | NASA

"Earlier in the LRO mission, the Apollo 13, 14, 15 and 17 impact sites were successfully identified, but Apollo 16′s remained elusive. In the case of Apollo 16, radio contact with the booster was lost before the impact, so the location was only poorly known," NASA wrote in a statement.

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"Positive identification of the Apollo 16 S-IVB site took more time than the other four impact craters because the location ended up differing by about 30 km (about 19 miles) from the Apollo-era tracking estimate. (For comparison, the other four S-IVB craters were all within 7 km - about four miles - of their estimated locations.)"

LRO, which has been orbiting the moon since 2009, has now imaged all of the Apollo landing sites and booster impact sites.

The site of the Apollo 16 rocket booster impact on the moon, in Mare Insularum.

Apollo has never looked better. More than 40 years after the astronauts explored the surface, two photo projects are showing us the moon as only a handful of people has seen before.

The Project Apollo Archive

uploaded thousands of scanned NASA images to Flickr. Also, a new crowdfunded book called "

Apollo: The Panoramas

" easily exceeded its initial goal and will begin shipping hardcover books next year. This is some of the science these photos helped NASA perform.

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Some rumors circulated in the late 1960s that the first Apollo astronauts to land on the moon may very well sink into the surface. That wasn't really the worry for NASA during Apollo 11; after all, the Surveyor 3 (U.S.) and Luna 9 (Soviet) spacecraft had arrived safely, among others, with little evidence of subsidence. But NASA was interested in how well the lunar module performed when astronauts arrived on the surface. In pictures, NASA surveyed information such as how far the feet penetrated into the surface, and how much of a divot the engine exhaust left behind.

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NASA was also interested in knowing how the investigators' experiments worked on the surface. Some of the experiments were used multiple times in missions, such as the foil solar wind composition collector seen here from Apollo 12. By asking the astronauts and looking at pictures of the deployed experiments, the investigators could make improvements from mission to mission to better data collection or other aspects of the mission.

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Without the lunar rover, the Apollo missions would have had severely limited surface operations. The rovers could carry equipment, samples and astronauts for many miles across the surface, allowing for more intensive investigations. NASA took care to make sure the astronauts observed a "walkback limit", just in case the rover broke down and the crew had to hike back to the lunar lander.

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As the Apollo program matured, the astronauts received advanced training in geology so they could better make choices about their work on the surface. This allowed them to select rocks representative of the environment, and to give detailed descriptions to Mission Control about their surroundings that could be recorded for the geology team. As a part of that, Apollo 15 commander Dave Scott did a brief survey of the landscape before even setting foot, perched inside the lunar lander and sticking his torso outside to take pictures and relay information to NASA.

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Where were the astronauts on the surface of the moon? That was no trivial question after astronauts began using rovers to get miles away from their landing site -- this shot from Apollo 16 gives you a taste. NASA closely monitored the astronauts' discussions, looking at television cameras and trying to plot their best estimates of the crew's location on orbital maps. Later on, when the pictures were developed, NASA and others looked at them to pin down where the astronauts physically were.

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While the astronauts described their surroundings as best as possible, NASA had a special color tool available to "calibrate" the images on the moon to their true color. An identical copy of this scale was on Earth, making it possible to do comparisons from afar as to what color the moon's regolith (soil) really was. That turned out to be very important on Apollo 17, when the astronauts found what they thought was orange regolith in an otherwise greytone landscape. They were right; it was the tint of volcanic glass.

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