moon tour

Visit the his­toric land­ing site of the fi­nal Apollo mis­sion to the Moon

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The Tau­rus-Lit­trow val­ley was the site of the Apollo 17 land­ing

On 11 De­cem­ber 1972 – in­cred­i­bly al­most half a cen­tury ago – the sixth and fi­nal Apollo land­ing took place when the lu­nar mod­ule Chal­lenger, with as­tro­nauts Har­ri­son Sch­mitt and Gene Cer­nan on­board, set down on the sur­face of the Moon. It was a bit­ter­sweet oc­ca­sion for thou­sands in­volved in the Apollo pro­gram and for mil­lions of peo­ple around the world; after the in­cred­i­ble suc­cess of Arm­strong and Aldrin’s Apollo 11 mis­sion, which saw the world hold­ing its breath and then erupt­ing with joy as the first boots stepped onto the dusty sur­face, the Apollo pro­gram had been cut short, and mis­sions sched­uled to fol­low Apollo 17 had been can­celled.

After reach­ing the Moon in tri­umph and ex­plor­ing it with won­der and ex­cite­ment, we were re­treat­ing back to Earth, called back early by politi­cians seek­ing to save money and re­spond­ing to wan­ing pub­lic sup­port for and in­ter­est in the lu­nar land­ings. But be­fore Gene Cer­nan fa­mously be­came the last man on the Moon and hopped back up Chal­lenger’s lad­der and closed the hatch be­hind him, he and ge­ol­o­gist Sch­mitt spent three won­der­ful days on the Moon, hav­ing the time of their lives as they ex­plored – on foot, and with the lu­nar rover – one of the most im­por­tant and beau­ti­ful sites vis­ited dur­ing the whole Apollo pro­gram – the Tau­rus Lit­trow val­ley, which is our tour des­ti­na­tion this month.

Find­ing the gen­eral area of the Apollo 17 land­ing site is ac­tu­ally quite easy as it lies on the bor­der be­tween two of the Moon’s largest and most ob­vi­ous naked-eye fea­tures, namely the Sea of Seren­ity and the Sea of Tran­quil­ity, but you’ll need a tele­scope to zoom in on the ac­tual land­ing site it­self.

If you look to the eastern ‘shore’ of the Sea of Seren­ity and fol­low the curve of the fea­ture down past the well-known ringed crater Posi­do­nius and then fur­ther down to where it meets up with the Sea of Tran­quil­ity be­low it, where the two meet you will find the gen­eral area of Tau­rusLit­trow. An­other route many lu­nar ob­servers take to Tau­rus-Lit­trow is to fol­low the rap­tor claw-like curve of Montes Hae­mus – the Hae­mus Moun­tains which form the western bound­ary be­tween the two seas – to the crater Plin­ius and then hop­scotch a lit­tle fur­ther east to the smaller crater Dawes. A sec­ond and fi­nal small hop to the east takes you to a much smaller moun­tain range, the Ar­gaeus Moun­tains, and nes­tled within their smi­ley-face curve is a trio of hills. Di­rectly be­tween the two hills fur­thest from the moun­tains is the Tau­rusLit­trow Val­ley, where the Chal­lenger set down 46 years ago this De­cem­ber.

You’ll need quite a large tele­scope and a high-mag­ni­fi­ca­tion eye­piece if you’re go­ing to see the ac­tual land­ing site it­self. You won’t be able to see any of the hard­ware used dur­ing the mis­sion and left be­hind, or the lu­nar rover’s wheel tracks or the scuffed trails left by the Moon­walk­ers’ boots – they are only vis­i­ble from or­bit through the elec­tronic eyes of satel­lites – but you will be able to see some of the ma­jor fea­tures the as­tro­nauts were sur­rounded by as they ex­plored the stun­ning lu­nar land­scape. As for the flag they planted, their dust­cov­ered lu­nar rover and their lu­nar mod­ule’s de­scent stage, sur­rounded by crazy-paving trails of boot prints and dis­carded back­packs, you’ll just have to imag­ine those…

When should you look? The land­ing site will not be vis­i­ble un­til 12 De­cem­ber when the ter­mi­na­tor, the line be­tween lu­nar night and day, will roll over it. For the next two or three evenings the Sun will be il­lu­mi­nat­ing it from a low an­gle so its fea­tures will re­ally stand out. Then the val­ley will be il­lu­mi­nated from a pro­gres­sively steeper an­gle un­til, by full Moon, it es­sen­tially dis­ap­pears, re­duced to a pat­tern of light and dark mark­ings.

Not un­til 24 De­cem­ber will it be­gin to stand out again as the ter­mi­na­tor rolls to­wards it. On 27 De­cem­ber the val­ley will be swal­lowed up by the Sty­gian gloom of the lu­nar night once more.

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