Sharp-eyed readers out there may notice that the above picture, while awe inspiring, is also impossible. In our solar system, the only significant source of light is the sun — so if that source is behind the moon, how are we seeing the moon as anything but a black silhouette?
The answer is that the photo is actually a composite of two sets of data, and the result of an inspired collaboration between two professional space imagers. The results of their collaboration show us the topography of the moon’s edge with unprecedented detail, as well as some of the most stunning images of space to come out in some time.
Keep in mind that the visuals in this picture are all real. The primary image was taken by the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), a space telescope that’s already brought us many jaw-dropping images of our sun. Its snapshots of a 2010 partial eclipse were impressive enough, but two scientists saw in them the potential for something more. Rather than being content with the crisp black circle of a backlit moon, they decided to map onto the photo topological data taken by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO). The results speak for themselves.
This was no mean easy feat, as to get an accurate mapping of LRO data onto the SRO image, they had to combine data from the same time and viewpoint, but from two totally separate instruments. Thankfully, the LRO’s Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter has taken more than 6 billion precise surface height measurements of the moon’s surface, so the imagers had at their disposal a computer model capable of generating the moon’s surface from anywhere at any time.
By wrapping their algorithmic render around a sphere, the two were able to accurately layer the output into photos of the eclipse. Taking into account both the angle and distance of the observatory, and the movement and rotation of the moon itself, allowed a stunningly crisp and precise image of this stellar event.
Since the moon itself has no atmosphere to speak of, the edges of the picture are extremely crisp. On the occasions that the orbiting camera sees the Earth move in front of the sun, our atmosphere blurs the edges of the sphere. Without that confounding variable, they were able to show individual geographical features of the moon, from mountains to craters.
You don’t need to study the layout of lunar valleys to appreciate the sheer beauty of their work, however. For more images, head to NASA’s own website.
Now read: Video explains the evolution of the moon
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