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.

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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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