Psychedelic artwork, or the surface of the moon? Why choose when you can have both at the same time? The Lunar Reconnoissance Orbiter team collected the most artistic, abstract data from the Moon, and I'm loving it. This is true Moon Art, loaded with science.

I'm perpetually confused by people who claim art and science are in conflict when so many data visualizations are downright gorgeous. This collection of lunar science-art is no exception, with data from the orbiter's seven instruments providing different ways to look at the lunar surface.

Starry Night

The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter is loaded with instruments that each detect something different.The Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter (LOLA) is a form of LiDAR, bouncing laser pulses off the moon's surface to determine topography. The pulse splits into 5 beams in a cross-shaped pattern, reflecting back as 5 parallel profiles along the lunar surface. This allows the team to analyze the data to determine not just distance from the spacecraft to the surface, but to calculate slope angles to a scale of 25 meters.


The Starry Nights image is the slopes near the lunar south pole. Bright white and red have the steepest slopes, over 25 degrees, running down the rainbow to dark blue and purple for the gentlest slopes of 5 degrees or less. The steepest slopes are the inner lips of crater rims, transforming the moon into a map of bubbles.

Read more about the image here.


Clerke Crater

This black-and-white photograph is of debris flows within Clerke crater taken with the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC). The camera produces high-resolution photographs down to 1 meter resolution, capturing wavelengths from visible light through ultraviolet.

The debris flow material is higher reflectance than the crater floor and walls, bright white across a dark background. By the principles of superposition, the landslides are younger than the crater. They may have been triggered by ground shaking from nearby impacts, like the landslides spotted next to the brand-new Mars crater.

Debris flows are a form of landslide that behave as a fluid, flowing long distances as a slurry of rock and debris. Early research on why terrestrial debris flows travelled as far as they did theorized that landslides glided on cushions of compressed air, reducing friction between debris and the surface. Observations of debris flows on the Moon exhibiting that same unexpected flowing behaviour over longer distances than predicted by the sliding-block model pretty much debunked the cushion-of-air, forcing landslide researchers to develop new theories.

Clerke crater is named for Agnes Mary Clerke, an early science popularizer with a knack for synthesizing research results into a big-picture context. Her 1885 history of astronomy and astrophysics brought the field into public awareness, while her later investigation of unsolved problems outlined her ideas for future research on the Sun, stars, and nebula.

Read more about the image here.

Diviner North Pole

The Diviner Lunar Radiometer (DLRE) measures temperature. This can be used to create surface and subsurface temperature maps, identifying cold traps and potential ice deposits, but it can also be used to identify landing hazards like rough terrain and boulders.

This is the nocturnal temperature of the lunar north pole. The colour scale runs down the rainbow from red-hot down to cool blue and cold purple. At the poles, half the Moon is in daylight and half is in darkness at any given point in the moon's orbit. Checking the temperature at midnight, topography and elevation play an enormous role in surface temperature, with sunward-facing slopes downright hot, and the shadowy poleward-facing slopes and deep craters much colder.

Linné Topography

This is a digital terrain model of Linné crater, created from a stereopair of LROC photographs. Stereopairs are two photographs taken of the same ground surface under the same lighting conditions, but from different angles. The difference in angle is enough to produce a three-dimensional image of the terrain, either through looking at one image with each eye, or using the images to create digital terrain models. While the Lunar Reconnoissance Orbiter was not designed specifically to take stereopairs of photographs, with careful planning it can create stereopairs by snapping photographs on consecutive orbits

Linné crater is a very young, beautifully preserved impact crater stretching 2.2 kilometers in diameter. The rainbow colourscale is the same one used in all the HiRISE digital terrain models on Mars: red is high, dropping down through cooler colours to low blue and purple.

Read more about the image here. You can also explore an extremely high-resolution version of it here.

Tycho Crater Peak

This sunrise over Tycho crater was photographed by LROC. The crater is a popular target for astronomers, easily identified as it stretches 82 kilometers in diameter. The central peak towers 2 kilometers above the crater floor, which is itself 4.7 kilometeters below the crater rim. The extremely sharp topography is due in part to the crater's young age, only about 110 million years old. Without wind or water, the only active weathering on the lunar surface is the constant rain of meteorites and micrometeorites, grinding away at the steep slopes and smoothing mountains with uncounted impacts.

Read more about the image here.

Now you've browsed the offerings, you can vote on your favourite moon art image here. Try here for more lunar beauty, or check out a NASA video of five more favourite LRO images. Moving away from our neighbour, you can browse beautiful digital elevation models from Mars, or just indulge in some gorgeous astronomical-themed eyecandy by visiting the io9 Space subsite every morning.

All images credit NASA/LRO. An earlier version of this article stated LRO has six instruments and one technology demonstration; thank you to Noah Petro for the correction.