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Gorgeous New Map of the Moon Is Most Detailed to Date

The rendering builds on decades of data that dates back to the Apollo missions, which happened some fifty years ago

The Unified Geologic Map of the Moon, showing the geology of the Moon’s near side (left) and far side (right). (NASA/GSFC/USGS)
smithsonianmag.com

Even at its closest approach, the moon doesn’t come within 220,000 miles of Earth. But thanks to a stunning new map created by scientists at the United States Geological Survey (USGS), NASA and the Lunar Planetary Institute, the world can still get an intimate look at Earth's stunning satellite in extraordinary detail.

Called the Unified Geologic Map of the Moon, the map combines Apollo-era data from the 1960s and 1970s with modern satellite observations to yield a dizzying catalog of geological features, including topology and the ages and chemical nature of the rocks that speckle the lunar surface.

“This map is a culmination of a decades-long project,” Corey Fortezzo, USGS geologist and lead author on this work, says in a statement. “It provides vital information for new scientific studies by connecting the exploration of specific sites on the moon with the rest of the lunar surface.”

Scientifically speaking, the map could help guide future crewed missions to the moon, or serve as an interactive tool for students here on Earth. But really, the new rendering is intended for everyone to enjoy—no previous lunar experience necessary.

Each millimeter on the map represents 5 kilometers on the moon—a 1:5,000,000 scale. Its layout is also color-coded, with each hue representing its own type of rock and the era from which it hails, giving viewers a sense of the moon’s storied geologic history. Yellow, for instance, indicates rock from the moon’s (current) Copernican period, which began a billion years ago, Ryan F. Mandelbaum reports for Gizmodo. Reds and purples, on the other hand, denote materials with volcanic or lava flow origins, according to Maria Temming at Science News.

Bolstered with elevation data from JAXA’s SELENE (Selenological and Engineering Explorer) mission and topography data from NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, the map is, in a sense, a comprehensive summary of everything scientists have figured out about the moon’s surface so far. It also establishes a new set of terminologies for describing the moon’s rock layers, which have been labeled inconsistently in past works, writes Chelsea Gohd for Space.com.

“Maps like this … help set a common [language] for scientists to understand what we’re talking about,” USGS research geologist James Skinner tells Gizmodo.

WIth the new rendering in hand, scientists will have an easier time identifying hazards on the lunar surface, as well as potential spots where future missions might look to land. Researchers will also be able to download the map and overlay their data, according to Gizmodo.

Intended as a developing resource, the map will continue to be tweaked as lunar research continues. As the researchers write in a conference abstract, this version itself is in fact a revamp that synthesizes and builds upon six 1:5,000,000-scale lunar geologic maps produced in 2013, based on Apollo observations.

If anything, the map’s creation is an incentive for further exploration. “People have always been fascinated by the moon and when we might return,” USGS Director and former NASA astronaut Jim Reilly says in the statement. “So, it’s wonderful to see USGS create a resource that can help NASA with their planning for future missions.”

About Katherine J. Wu
Katherine J. Wu

Katherine J. Wu is a Boston-based science journalist and Story Collider senior producer whose work has appeared in National Geographic, Undark magazine, Popular Science and more. She holds a Ph.D. in Microbiology and Immunobiology from Harvard University, and was Smithsonian magazine's 2018 AAAS Mass Media Fellow.

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