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Prototype Reveals Unprecedented Close-Up Photos of the Moon’s Surface

A Synthetic Aperture Radar image of the Moon’s Tycho Crater. Image Credit: Green Bank Observatory.

An incredible prototype radar system has revealed the highest-resolution photographs of the Moon ever captured from Earth.

The National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), Green Bank Observatory (GBT), and Raytheon Intelligence & Space (RIS) are designing a next-generation planetary radar system for the Green Bank Telescope (GBT), the world’s largest fully steerable radio telescope. The prototype of this system consists of an RIS-developed, GBT-tested, low-power transmitter, which was recently aimed at the lunar surface. The signals bounced off the lunar surface and were received by ten Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA) antennas. With a resolution of 5 meters, the prototype captured incredible photographs of the base of the Tycho crater, located in the Moon’s southern hemisphere and measures approximately 85 kilometers in diameter. And while the high-definition photographs of the lunar surface are a true wonder considering the distance between the moon and our planet, the greatest surprise is this new prototype’s power output, with up to 700 watts of output power at 13.9 GHz.

An amazing feat

“It’s pretty amazing what we’ve been able to capture so far, using less power than a common household appliance,” emphasized Patrick Taylor, radar division head for GBO and NRAO. The photographs were presented during the American Astronomical Society’s 241st Conference in Seattle, Washington. During the event, Taylor also presented a single radar image of the Apollo 15 landing site at a staggering 1.25-meter resolution, which he referred to as “the highest resolution image of the Moon ever taken from the ground.” To understand just how groundbreaking this truly is, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC) aboard the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) can take photographs of the Moon’s surface with a resolution of up to 0.5 meters. This means that this prototype radar can take photographs of the Moon’s surface from Earth almost as well as a spacecraft currently orbiting the Moon.

A useful tool

But the new prototype is more than just a tool to snap stunning close-up photographs of the Moon. The prototype radar is a tool astronomers use to detect and observe potentially hazardous asteroids. In fact, the prototype had already identified one such object in 2021 when it spotted an asteroid now known as (231937) 2001 FO32. This space rock is labeled as “potentially hazardous” due to its size, measuring around 1 kilometer in diameter, and its orbital closeness to Earth, in this case, just over 2 million kilometers away. The detection of the asteroid appeared as a spike in their data. Scientists say that the next steps include expanding the radar to 500 kilowatts, nearly 1,000 times more powerful than the current 700-watt prototype. However, with its potential planetary defense capabilities, GBO’s future radar system could also be used for planetary science purposes, including imaging, astrometry, and physical and dynamic characterizations of planetary objects within the Solar System.

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