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NASA Creates 3-D Maps From Apollo Lunar Images

Generates digital mosaics from scanned images taken aboard early 1970s moon missions.

NASA's Next Mission: Deep Space
NASA's Next Mission: Deep Space
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Even as the latest in NASA spacecraft technology has just entered orbit around the moon, the agency has created digital maps out of images taken decades ago by spacecraft on some of the earliest missions to Earth's closest celestial body.

Through the Apollo Zone project out of the NASA Ames Research Center, scientists have created maps out of static images taken from the Apollo Metric Camera aboard the Apollo 15, 16, and 17 spacecraft, which flew to the moon in the early 1970s as part of the larger Apollo mission.

The "Digital Image Mosaic (DIM) and Digital Terrain Model (DTM) maps cover about 18% of the lunar surface at a resolution of 98 feet (30 meters) per pixel," according to NASA.

They can be viewed via the NASA Lunar Mapping and Modeling Portal (LMMP) and Google Moon feature of Google Earth.

[ The space agency is outfitting International Space Station astronauts with Android-controlled robotic assistants. Meet NASA's Smartphone-Driven Robots. ]

The Intelligent Robotics Group (IRG) at Ames worked on the maps for three years, creating algorithms to automatically generate 2-D and 3-D maps from legacy scans taken some 40 years ago, according to the space agency.

NASA has released the software that creates automatic image mosaics and terrain models in several open-source libraries so other developers can use it, said IRG director Terry Fong in a statement. Those libraries include the Ames Stereo Pipeline, Neo-Geography Toolkit, and NASA Vision Workbench.

A team from Arizona State University recently scanned the images used in Apollo Zone for NASA's Johnson Space Center. The images are 20,000 pixels by 20,000 pixels, and the IRG used the Pleiades supercomputer at Ames--one of the most powerful in the world--to process more than 4,000 of them into the maps.

The space agency aims to expand the Apollo Zone research by using the algorithms to reconstitute more complex images, such as those taken at angles rather than the ones used in the project, according to NASA. The Apollo Zone images were taken from a vantage point of looking straight down at the moon's surface.

NASA research and technology has come a long way since its earliest trips to the moon and is currently in the middle of a mission to create the most sophisticated map ever of lunar gravity.

The agency's twin spacecrafts in its Gravity Recovery And Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) mission entered lunar orbit over the weekend and will use details on the moon's surface to map its gravity.

Scientists plan to use this information to understand better the moon's interior and thermal history and "rewrite the textbooks on the evolution of the moon," according to Maria Zuber, a principal investigator from Massachusetts Institute of Technology on the GRAIL project.

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