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The Moon Is Not Black And White, It Just Looks That Way

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Hands up if you think about the Moon in black and white? Yes – well, you’re not alone, and there’s actually good reason for you to, because the surface of the Moon is nearly devoid of strong colors in comparison to what we’re used to here on Earth.

Someone (a junior member of my family) asked me about this recently, which sent me digging through the Apollo image archives – a remarkable library of photographs, many of which I’m pretty sure that most of us haven’t seen very often. And here are some of those images, all of them are in full color, even if you might think otherwise.

Apollo 14 (NASA)

This first one is from Apollo 14, taken by Alan Shepard to document a set of scientific instruments deployed by the astronauts; ion detectors, a geophone, seismic monitor, lunar environment experiment and so on. Note that the only discernible color is on the devices themselves, particularly the gold blanketing and connector cables, the lunar soil is, well, gray.

Apollo 16 (NASA)

This is from Apollo 16, showing Charlie Duke at the rover. Again, the only noticeable color comes from the rover, the color bar device in the lower center, and if you peek closely, the United States flag on the back of the spacesuit life support.

Apollo 16 (NASA)

Apollo 16 again, a full color image…

Apollo 17 (NASA)

Apollo 17, on the rover heading to Station 1.

Apollo 17 (NASA)

Apollo 17 again, a boulder being studied and sampled, plus a color reference.

Apollo 17 (NASA)

Apollo 17, picture taken by Gene Cernan (shadow) showing Harrison (Jack) Schmitt in the distance with the LM and rover.

Apollo 17 (NASA)

Apollo 17, Earth over the LM.

Apollo 11 (NASA)

Apollo 11, showing the struts of the LM and the scuffed up soil from Neil and Buzz’s feet.

Apollo 15 (NASA)

Apollo 15, a feather and hammer in the lunar dirt…left from the famous demonstration of Galileo’s experiment that all objects are accelerated equally in the gravity field of a planet (or moon).

Apollo 16 (NASA)

Apollo 16, back to the black and white, a very gray breccia (boulder) seen over the side of the rover.

Apollo 17 (NASA)

Apollo 17, Harrison (Jack) Schmitt seen on the far side of the rover, the tone of this picture is amazing.

Apollo 17 (NASA)

Apollo 17, West view towards the Taurus-Littrow Valley entrance.

Apollo 13 (NASA)

Finally, not the blue marble that’s usually shown, this is from Apollo 13. One can only imagine what this view felt like to the astronauts of the stricken mission as they tried to get back home.

Caleb A. Scharf About the Author: Caleb Scharf is the director of Columbia University's multidisciplinary Astrobiology Center. He has worked in the fields of observational cosmology, X-ray astronomy, and more recently exoplanetary science. His latest book is 'Gravity's Engines: How Bubble-Blowing Black Holes Rule Galaxies, Stars, and Life in the Cosmos', and he is working on 'The Copernicus Complex' (both from Scientific American / Farrar, Straus and Giroux.) Follow on Twitter @caleb_scharf.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. M Tucker 1:45 pm 09/20/2013

    “…the Apollo image archives – a remarkable library of photographs, many of which I’m pretty sure that most of us haven’t seen very often.”

    That’s for sure. I haven’t seen these before and I have looked at a lot of photos from the Apollo Program. These are fantastic and if NASA had any imagination regarding this they would put together a beautiful coffee table book of the ‘exploitation’ photos. It would increase public interest in sending man back to the moon and generate a few bucks for that project.

    “Someone (a junior member of my family) asked me about this recently…”

    And your answer was…?? Or did you just give that junior member a couple of photos to mull over? Some of the rocks I have seen do have color beyond gray. What is responsible for the dominate gray color that coats the surface of the moon and the astronaut’s uniform?

    Link to this
  2. 2. CDBSB 2:32 pm 09/20/2013

    M Tucker,

    Good idea. If I remember correctly, the photos are all in the public domain, so one wouldn’t need to spend a lot to get a book like this made. Setup a non-profit and have the proceeds go to NASA.

    Link to this

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