Exposing PseudoAstronomy

June 25, 2009

The Apollo Moon Hoax: Why Haven’t Any Pictures Been Taken of the Landing Sites?

The Claim

Before I start to really explore the main claims of the Apollo Moon Hoax proponents, I thought I would give an overview of one of their only lines of “evidence” that isn’t anomaly hunting: When claim after claim is refuted, many of the Hoax proponents will ask the apparent stumper – “If the landings really happened, then why hasn’t NASA or anyone else taken pictures of the landing sites? Hubble can see to the edge of the visible Universe, but it hasn’t even been used to photograph Apollo?”

Update on 7/17/2009: NASA has released the first photographs from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter showing most of the Apollo landing sites: Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Images Apollo Landing Sites.

All posts in this series:

Basic Optics

The reason that, as of the time of this writing, the sites have not been imaged is that there simply has not been a telescope that can image them from that telescope’s location.

Very basic optical theory says that the best angular resolution – the smallest angle that a telescope can resolve – is θ = sin-1(1.220*λ/D). In this equation, θ is the angle in radians, λ is the wavelength of light, and D is the diameter of the telescope’s primary light-gathering optic (either the front lens or the primary mirror).

(I didn’t make this equation up, it can be found in any optics or even basic physics text, but I am not going to derive it here.)

How Big Are the Apollo Relics?

In physics, we like round numbers. We have some rovers up there, some instrumentation, a few flags (that would now be destroyed because of the sun’s UV radiation), and some lunar module feet. Let’s actually round up and say that the largest object we left has about a 5 meter-diameter footprint.

The moon is 384,400,000 meters away, on average. This sets up a right triangle with one leg the distance to the moon, and the other leg being half the size of our Apollo relic. The angle that relic makes is then θ = tan-1((relic)/(distance)) = 3.726*10-7°. That’s really small.

Let’s convert this to something astronomers use a little more often, arcseconds. 1° = 60 arcminutes = 3600 arcseconds. So, our relic now subtends (extends over) 1.34*10-3 (0.00134) arcseconds from Earth. That’s really small.

For reference, the full moon subtends ~30 arcminutes, while Venus at its smallest is a little under 10 arcseconds.

What Can Telescopes Resolve?

Now let’s use Hubble and see what the smallest thing is that it can see. Hubble has a 2.4-meter primary mirror, and it looks in the UV, visible, and near-IR light. Let’s pick a green wavelength, a nice, round 500 nm (5000 Å). Hubble is basically at Earth, so we don’t need to re-calculate the angle the Apollo relic would cover.

At 500 nm, Hubble has a resolving power of 0.05 arcseconds, and the pixels on Hubble’s detector are actually 0.1 arcsecond across. This corresponds to a spot size about 370 meters across.

The largest optical telescope on Earth – the Keck 10-m telescope, can theoretically resolve an object at the 0.013 arcsecond level, but this still is 1 order of magnitude too large (10x) to resolve any Apollo relic on the moon.

Future Plans

As of the time of writing this, NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has just entered orbit of the moon. Its final orbit will place it very close to the surface, only about 50 km away during the nominal mission. The LROC (Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera) has both a wide and narrow camera to it, and it will have a resolution of better than 1 meter. And, it WILL be photographing the Apollo landing sites, hopefully laying to rest these claims.

Pragmatically, however, I expect that true hoax believers will simply say that NASA has “Photoshopped” the images. As one poster on the “Above Top Secret” conspiracy site stated, “Haha, yeah… with photoshopped objects being inserted into the pictures. I couldn’t trust any NASA image to be a true representation of what is or isn’t there.”

And this is another example of a “true believer” mentality: Even after a claim is made out, it is answered, and then even further work is done to actually gather the evidence, it is dismissed out of hand as a simply more deceit.

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  1. By far the best proof man did not walk on the moon. Stu, I’m going to grill you on this (it’s me… Conspiracy Skeptic Karl)



    1) Our holy book says it’s impossible
    2) therefore man did not walk on the moon

    Money shot quote:

    ||The Vedic account of our planetary system is already researched, concluded, and perfect. The Vedas state that the moon is 800,000 miles farther from the earth than the sun. Therefore, even if we accept the modern calculation of 93 million miles as the distance from the earth to the sun, how could the “astronauts” have traveled to the moon–a distance of almost 94 million miles–in only 91 hours (the alleged elapsed time of the Apollo 11 moon trip)? This would require an average speed of more than one million miles per hour for the spacecraft, a patently impossible feat by even the space scientists’ calculations.||


    Comment by mindmetoo — June 29, 2009 @ 10:42 am | Reply

    • You need professional help, you [----]. Why do you believe that we can even calculate the distance to ANYTHING in space, and not belive we walked on the moon? Duh…..

      Comment by Ralph — July 17, 2009 @ 2:50 pm | Reply

      • Ralph – If you’re referring to Arlington’s comments, he was replying to the Hari Krishna quote that mindme (Karl) left a few comments ago. I’m fairly sure that Arlington does think we went to the moon, but it is a little hard to tell from the way he worded his response.

        Comment by astrostu206265 — July 17, 2009 @ 3:13 pm

      • Ralph, you need professional help if you are unable to read the comments and see that mindmetoo was criticising the statements made by the Hari Krishnas.

        He was not arguing that man did not land on the moon, he was showing the stupidity of moon landing skeptics.

        You however do fine showing your own stupidity.

        Comment by Nemo — July 20, 2009 @ 7:55 pm

    • To the guy who wrote the article:

      What? What religion do YOU belong to?
      Also, you suck at math. If the moon is 800,000 miles farther from the earth than the sun, than it is 800,000 miles from the Earth to the Moon.
      My Math:
      Earth to Sun = 93 Million Miles
      Moon to Sun = Earth to Sun + 800,000 Miles
      Earth to Moon = Moon to Sun – Earth to Sun
      Answer = 800,000

      Comment by sasracer — July 18, 2009 @ 1:09 pm | Reply

  2. I made a film called DID WE GO?
    I was paid $65,000 from the State of Ohio to try and prove we really landed on the moon.

    I traveled all over OHIO trying to get Neil to talk…he will not talk to anyone.

    Here is link to my film on youtube. It opens with me on WLW-AM Radio in Ohio, trying to reach out to Neil

    please share this link

    Comment by realitysurfer — July 6, 2009 @ 8:32 pm | Reply

    • It’s not true that Neil Armstrong won’t talk to anyone. He’s just extremely selective. See:


      And I suspect he’s had it with all the idiots demanding that he swear on a Bible that he really went, accusing him of lying, etc, etc.

      I recently read an excellent book “Apollo Moon Missions: The Unsung Heroes”

      The idea for this book was suggested to the author Billy Watkins by John Young, commander of the Apollo 16 mission, who said quite accurately that all of the astronauts have been “interviewed to death”. Why not find some of the 400,000 people who helped work on Apollo and interview one of them? I’m sure they’d be happy to talk to you about whatever part they played. And I’m sure they’d be happy to tell you just what they think of the notion that the whole thing was a scam. Hurry up, though; it’s been over 40 years now and they won’t be around a whole lot longer.

      Comment by Phil Karn — March 31, 2010 @ 12:52 am | Reply

  3. Karl – I said this in our interview together, but for the benefit of blog readers … I don’t argue with people who espouse claims like that. People who absolutely refuse to look at any (all) evidence that contradicts their beliefs are an exercise in futility if you want to argue with them. One can almost never convince a True Believer, pretty much by definition. We all have our sacred cows, though in the case that you quoted, that term should be taken nearly literally.

    Reality Surfer – I have not watched your clip, but I will state this: Neil Armstrong is actually reasonably unique among other astronauts from the Apollo missions in that he will almost never give interviews under any circumstances. Personally, I don’t blame him. That said, the claim that no Apollo astronaut will give an interview is patently false, as there are plenty of examples throughout the last ~40 years where they have given interviews, including very recent (last few years) movies and TV specials. I’m not saying you made that claim in particular, but I wanted to clarify it for readers.

    Comment by astrostu206265 — July 6, 2009 @ 8:51 pm | Reply

  4. http://krishna.org/did-man-really-walk-on-the-moon/

    Here’s a new one.

    madhudvisa-dasa says:
    July 7, 2009 at 5:26 am

    - Lunar Lazar Ranging. Which means firing a lazer at some small reflectors that are supposed to be left on the moon by some of the Apollo missions. There are supposed to be three reflectors up there 2 are one foot square and one is three foot square. I have spent quite some time working with the scientists at the only functioning Luna Lazer tracking station in Texas. It is run by an old scientist and three lab technicians. It is a small trailer on the top of a hill with a 12 telescope and a green lazer pulsing out these impressive green beams of light at night. But mostly they can not get any returns from the supposed reflectors on the moon. It is quite bizzare. They are looking for a few photons of light only. Because by the time the lazer beam gets to the moon it is hundreds of miles wide. So how much of the lazer light can fall on a 1 foot square reflector? and then by the time the reflection gets back to earth that little bit of light that fell on the reflector is spread over hundreds of miles and so many of the photons of light in the reflection don’t get through the earth’s atmosphere. So how many photons of the reflected light are likely to come back into the 12″ telescope? Not many at all…

    And the experiment is “rigged.” What they do is they fire the lazer and they already “know” the distance of the earth to the moon so they “know” when to expect the returned photons. So they do not turn on the detector until the time they “know” the photons will be returning from the moon on that pulse. And then they very quickly turn off the detector again. Of course it is done by a computer program. So they only look for photons in the time interval when they “know” the reflected photons will be coming back. And of course even if they find some photons they have no idea where they are coming from. It may be just atmospheric light. There is no way they can tell the difference between light reflected from the supposed reflectors on the moon and any other light. Of course the wavelength. They look for green light… But any green light will do.

    So if they happen to find some green light in that tiny time interval when they are expecting the returns from the reflectors on the moon they say they have got a return…

    I have also spent some time in Australia at Siding Springs where some more honest scientists were doing this experiment. In Australia they are in the best place to get reflections from the supposed reflectors on the moon but despite doing this experiment as Siding Springs for many years they could never conclusivly say that they were getting any reflection from the supposed reflectors… And for some time the French were also doing this experiment. And they claimed they could always get the reflections of their lazer returned. They claimed they could even do it in full sunshine…

    So anyhow, I have throughly studied this Lunar Lazar Ranging experiment and found it does not give conclusive proof that there are reflectors on the moon.

    Of course the moon itself is a reflector so in theory if you fire a powerful enough lazer at it you will get a reflection, even if there are no reflectors on the moon.

    Comment by mindmetoo — July 7, 2009 @ 5:44 am | Reply

    • “Of course the moon itself is a reflector so in theory if you fire a powerful enough lazer at it you will get a reflection, even if there are no reflectors on the moon.”

      The moon experiment uses what are known as retro reflectors. These are not just simple mirrors. Photons that strike the reflector will bounce back in the same direction as they came, increasing the chances of detection at the experiment site. These refelctors are used for presicision alignments of machinary, aircraft, ships, paper mills, etc.

      “And the experiment is “rigged.” What they do is they fire the lazer and they already “know” the distance of the earth to the moon so they “know” when to expect the returned photons.”

      We ‘know’ the coarse measurment of the distance from the earth to the moon. This can be calculated utilizing telescopes and orbital mechanics. In order to make very precise ranging measurements you need to utilize light or radio waves to directly sense the position. The instruments used to sample for incoming light probably work at very high speeds, at least for when the instrument was designed. A pulse is sent, and a timer triggers the detection instrument just prior to the expected time of return. This increases the chances that you are going to capture the return photon and be able to measure the timing between the initial pulse and the return pulse. The presicision of the timing requirements are incredible. The current instrument is listing accuracies of 2 cm. 2 cm require timing accuracy of 6.6712819 × 10-11 s. That is very small.

      I like the statment that the reflectors are supposed to have been left there. They were also sent to the moon on unmanned missions.

      I’m guessing that the writter doesn’t quite understand how to setup and conduct scientific experiments.

      Comment by Arlington — July 17, 2009 @ 1:26 pm | Reply

    • Check out the new Apache Point Observatory Lunar Laser-ranging Operation (“APOLLO”). They get considerably better results than all the previous stations because of more modern equipment and a bigger telescope (3.5 meters). The Wikipedia writeup is here:


      This is the experiment’s own website:


      Check the many references for much more detail. Yes, they only look at the photons that come back around the expected time. But guess what? As demonstrated on Mythbusters, they get these narrow pulses ONLY when that time corresponds to one of the Apollo reflector sites (they used Apollo 15, because its reflector is three times bigger than the reflectors at the Apollo 11 and 14 sites).

      When they point the scope at some random spot on the moon without a reflector, it doesn’t matter what time window they use; they simply don’t get those nice sharp pulses at all.

      Those photons all come back very close together in time, specifically within 1 nanosecond. That’s the time it takes light to travel 30 cm or about one foot – out of about half a million miles, round trip. With extra work they can refine their distance measurements to better than one millimeter! That’s good enough to test all sorts of interesting scientific theories, like verifying relativity, modeling how the earth’s poles “wander”, and many other things.

      There’s simply no way around it; the reflections that they regularly get from the Apollo sites can ONLY come from a physically small (less than 1 meter), extremely reflective device — an artificial retroreflector. They can even measure the slight time spread from when the reflector isn’t pointing exactly at earth; in fact, this is one of their largest error sources. This is because the reflector orientation is fixed but the earth moves a little in the lunar sky because of something called “lunar libration”. The moon rotates at a uniform rate, but its orbit around the earth is slightly eccentric so it moves a little faster at some times in the month and a little slower at others.

      By the way, you might come across somewhat better informed in your postings if you take the time to spell “laser” correctly.

      Comment by Phil Karn — March 31, 2010 @ 1:21 am | Reply

  5. Hubble vs LRO

    Here’s an interesting way hoaxers will move the goal post.

    They wonder why we can’t train the hubble (a NASA “owned” telescope) on the moon and resolve the landing sites. If Hubble could show this, this is apparently good evidence for them (why would then bring it up time and time again?).

    However, they will certainly argue, if the LRO shows clear evidence, that the images can’t be trusted as they come from NASA. (NASA is a government agency and since they lied to us about 9/11, the kennedy assassination, UFOs, 2012, HIV, nothing out of the government can ever be trusted.)

    Comment by mindmetoo — July 10, 2009 @ 9:34 am | Reply

    • Yes, they do indeed move the goal posts constantly.

      I think that even if you could take them there and show them the Apollo hardware in person, they’d maintain that all that hardware was just recently planted on the moon. Or that you merely implanted their memory of the trip into their brains like Arnie Schwarzenegger in the movie “Total Recall”.

      There’s no convincing a True Believer! Not when the myth gives their lives such meaning.

      Comment by Phil Karn — March 31, 2010 @ 1:26 am | Reply

  6. Keep up the good work. Don’t forget to mention an exhaustive site (http://www.clavius.org/) that covers virtually any moon landing question in detail.

    Comment by John — March 7, 2010 @ 12:35 pm | Reply

    • Thanks. I’ve cited them a few times and I also reference them in the presentation I do about the moon hoax, but in general on my blog I try to synthesize instead of just post links.

      Comment by astrostu206265 — March 7, 2010 @ 12:41 pm | Reply

    • Thanks John. After my KSC/NASA visit on 7/20/2012, I’ve spent days (and nights lol) trying get conspiracy theorists to think things all the way through. And that their conspiracies are as fantastic as actually GOING to the moon, if not more-so. It was good to see my sentiments said so expertly!

      Comment by Steve — July 29, 2012 @ 11:22 am | Reply

  7. It is amazing that the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter can take photos of the actual path the Apollo astronauts walked on the moon. And yet the more advanced Japanese orbiter can’t – that’s the official information released by the Japanese space agency. Wonder why?

    Comment by bruce — August 11, 2011 @ 10:25 am | Reply

    • What do you mean by “advanced”? Each spacecraft carries a unique set of instruments, most of which aren’t even able to take pictures as we know them. Only LRO carries a visible light camera with sufficient resolution to image the Apollo sites, so if that’s how you define “advanced” then it is easily the most advanced probe we’ve yet sent to the moon. But the Japanese Kaguya spacecraft carried many other instruments, each of which could rightly be called “advanced” by the people who built it.

      Comment by Phil Karn — October 12, 2011 @ 5:07 pm | Reply

  8. Why doesn’t NASA simply make all information directly and instantly to the public “as it happens”? They could point their Hubble or whatever and beam the images straight to your laptops… everyone will see what’s there “LIVE” but as it stands, ALL images and video are now “processed” by the agency BEFORE being released to the public. Until they do this, like the early days, you’ll ALWAYS have reason to believe there is something to hide… after all, it’s just a bloody moon, why all the secretive drama? I just don’t get it.

    Comment by spACE — February 12, 2012 @ 7:47 pm | Reply

    • When it comes to the pictures from the Lunar Reconnaisance Orbiter, that’s pretty much what they already do. Just go to this site at the University of Arizona for all the raw data:


      Comment by Phil Karn — February 13, 2012 @ 6:46 am | Reply

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