Space Photos of the Week: Moon Walks for Moon Rocks

The International Astronautical Congress met in Washington, DC, last week, and the conference was attended by NASA, the European Space Agency, and several private spaceflight companies, and the takeaway was clear: Humans are going back to the moon—that’s the plan, at least.

NASA recently announced a human exploration program called Artemis, which is aiming for a visit to the moon in 2024. Blue Origin—the space company launched by Amazon’s founder Jeff Bezos—said it would be hiring other aerospace companies to help build any landers that NASA might need for its Artemis mission.

It’s been more than 40 years since humans have stepped foot on the moon, and while we often see photos of our natural satellite, this week we are going to explore images taken on the moon by the last people who were there.

This truly alien view of the moon is one of the last photos taken there by humans. In December 1972, the crew of Apollo 17 found this outcrop of boulders and took a photo during one of the extravehicular activities around the Taurus-Littrow landing site. This valley is surrounded by a ridge of mountains that formed some 3.9 billion years ago, and in this photo you can see some rocks made of basalt—a result of the cooling from the lava flow that once occurred there.Photograph: JSC

Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison Schmit looks tiny next to this big lunar boulder. Fellow astronaut Eugene Cernan captured this photo of Schmidt (the only scientist and geologist to visit the moon) while he is likely getting ready to collect samples. (Though to us it looks like he’s hanging moon clothes out to dry.)Eugene A. Cernan/JSC

The Apollo 14 mission landed on the moon in 1971, and this photo taken by a crew member shows a rock about the size of a basketball—but small enough to take back to Earth. Part of the astronauts’ extravehicular activities involved scouting the area around the landing site and deciding what rocks were most interesting from a scientific point of view.JSC

That same year, the crew of Apollo 15 explored another region of the moon. In this quiet landscape, we see rolling hills covered in fine grey dirt. But notice over to the left a dark rock with a fan-like dark streak extending to its right? That’s ejecta from an impact on the surface. Just like on Earth or Mars, when a meteorite rams into the surface, it kicks up the top layer of dirt, revealing fresher darker material below. The team called this the “strewn rock” scene.James B. Irwin/JSC

This is one of the more odd and unique photos taken on the surface of the moon. It shows a “relatively fresh crater” with broken up rocks in the foreground. The crew of Apollo 15 spotted this crowded rocky area during a routine outing, so to speak. In the background are two separate mountain ranges—the Hadley Delta Mountain range is on the right, while the Apennine Front sits at center and left.Photograph: JSC

Before departing the moon for good, the crew of Apollo 17 captured this photo of Shorty Crater, where astronaut Harrison Schmidt famously found some orange-colored soil, as well as orange and black glass—results of ancient volcanic activity. It has been more than 47 years since anyone has revisited the moon; this crew was the last to step foot on our constant space companion.Photograph: JSC
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