A new telescope system has managed to capture the highest resolution image ever taken of the Moon taken from Earth using radar technology.
The feat took years of work, and the result is wonderfully detailed. The focal point is Tycho Crater, one of the most prominent impressions on the Moon. And even though it was taken from hundreds of thousands of kilometers away, the picture makes you feel as if you are flying over the surface of Earth’s only natural satellite.
The resulting image has a resolution of five meters by five meters and contains approximately 1.4 billion pixels. Together, it covers the full width of Tycho Crater, all 86 kilometers in diameter (53 mi), and more.
From this bird’s-eye view, every wrinkle on the Moon’s beat-up surface looks distinctly different.
The National Science Foundation’s Green Bank Telescope (GBT) is located in West Virginia and is the largest fully steerable radio telescope in the world. This allows astronomers to point their adorable eye in any direction.
Earlier this year, the satellite was outfitted with a new radar transmitter, developed by Raytheon Intelligence and Space, that is capable of sending pulses into near space.
As each of these signals bounces off the Moon’s surface, it is retrieved by the Very Long Baseline Array of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), also headquartered in West Virginia.
“The stored pulses are compared to each other and analyzed to produce an image,” explains GBO engineer Galen Watts.
In January, researchers tested the system by taking a radar image of the Apollo 15 landing site, proving that they could indeed take high-definition images from Earth.
Months later, they successfully snapped an even higher resolution image of Tycho Crater.
“The transmitter, target, and receiver are all constantly moving as we move through space,” Watts explains.
“While you might think that this can make an image more difficult, it actually produces more important data.”
Since each returning radar pulse carries information from a slightly different orientation, astronomers can obtain a greater angle from a stable observation.
This means scientists can calculate the distance to a target and the speed of that target with greater accuracy.
“This kind of radar data has never been recorded before at such a distance or resolution,” says Watts.
“This has been done over the first few hundred kilometers, but not on the scale of hundreds of thousands of kilometers of this project, and has not been done at these distances with a high resolution of a meter or more.”
Even just 10 years ago, Watts says, getting an image from just a single received radar signal would have counted months. Even more would have taken more than a year.
Astronomers hope that the new technology will allow us to explore parts of the solar system we’ve never seen before, all from the comfort of our own planet.