This is the highest resolution topography map to date of the moon's south pole. It details a region approximately 311 miles by 249 miles (500 km by 400 km). NASA scientists developed it using data from the Goldstone Radar in California's Mojave Desert. Credit: NASA/JPL


A vivid new topographical map of the moon's south pole paints rainbow colors over contours, revealing craters that are permanently shadowed.

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif. created the new false-color map from observations gathered by the Goldstone Solar System Radar, located in California's Mojave Desert.

The map will help mission planners for NASA's new Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS), a small spacecraft now that is destined to slam into the lunar south pole region Oct. 9.

"Since the beginning of time, these lunar craters have been invisible to humanity," Barbara Wilson, a scientist at JPL said in a statement. "Now we can see detailed topography inside these craters."

Wilson said the new map revealed lunar crater features at a resolution of about 132 feet (40 meters) per pixel.

To produce this map,Goldstone's massive antenna, three-quarters the size of a football field, sent a 500-kilowatt, 90-minute-long radar stream to the moon, 231,800 miles (373,046 kilometers) away. The moon's rugged terrain reflected the signals back to Goldstone, a roundtrip time clocked at 2.5 seconds.

The scientists compared their data against that from a laser altimeter recently released by the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency's Kaguya mission. The new map provides contiguous topographic detail over a region approximately 311 miles (500 km) by 249 miles (400 km).

Its contour data will help mission planners plot out the planned impact zone for the LCROSS probe and its attached Centaur rocket stage. NASA plans to intentially crash the two vehicles into the permanently shadowed craters of the moon's south pole. Telescopes in space and on Earth will then scan the resulting plume of material for signs of water ice.

NASA launched the LCROSS probe and a larger spacecraft, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, last month. The orbiter is currently circling the moon and has beamed home its first high-resolution images of the lunar surface.

Goldstone's 230-foot (70-meter) radar dish is one-third of the Deep Space Network used to monitor spacecraft across the solar system. The other two antennas are in Madrid, Spain and Canberra, Australia.