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