Solar System: 10 Things to Know This Week

Rockets We Love-Saturn V

Fifty years ago, with President Kennedy’s Moon landing deadline looming, the powerful Saturn V had to perform. And perform it did—hurling 24 humans to the Moon.


The race to land astronauts on the Moon was getting tense 50 years ago this week. Apollo 6, the final uncrewed test flight of America’s powerful Moon rocket, launched on April 4, 1968. Several technical issues made for a less-than-perfect launch, but the test flight nonetheless convinced NASA managers that the rocket was up to the task of carrying humans. Less than two years remained to achieve President John F. Kennedy’s goal to put humans on the Moon before the decade was out, meaning the Saturn V rocket had to perform.

1—“The only chance to get to the Moon before the end of 1969.”


After the April 1968 Apollo 6 test flight (pictured above), the words of Deke Slayton (one of the original Mercury 7 astronauts) and intense competition with a rival team in the Soviet Union propelled a 12-member panel to unanimously vote for a Christmas 1968 crewed mission to orbit the Moon.

2—Four Hundred Elephants…


The Saturn V rocket stood about the height of a 36-story-tall building, and 60 feet (18 meters) taller than the Statue of Liberty. Fully fueled for liftoff, the Saturn V weighed 6.2 million pounds (2.8 million kilograms), or the weight of about 400 elephants.

3—…and Busloads of Thrust


Stand back, Ms. Frizzle. The Saturn V generated 7.6 million pounds (34.5 million newtons) of thrust at launch, creating more power than 85 Hoover Dams. It could launch about 130 tons (118,000 kilograms) into Earth orbit. That’s about as much weight as 10 school buses. The Saturn V could launch about 50 tons (43,500 kilograms) to the Moon. That’s about the same as four school buses.

4—Christmas at the Moon


On Christmas Eve 1968, the Saturn V delivered on engineers’ promises by hurling Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders into lunar orbit. The trio became the first human beings to orbit another world. The Apollo 8 crew broadcast a special holiday greeting from lunar orbit and also snapped the iconic earthrise image of our home planet rising over the lunar landscape.

5—Gumdrop and Spider


The crew of Apollo 9 proved that they could pull the lunar module out of the top of the Saturn V’s third stage and maneuver it in space (in this case high above Earth). The crew named their command module “Gumdrop.” The Lunar Module was named “Spider.”

6—The Whole Enchilada


Saturn-V AS-505 provided the ride for the second dry run to the Moon in 1969. Tom Stafford, Gene Cernan and John Young rode Command Module “Charlie Brown” to lunar orbit and then took Lunar Module “Snoopy” on a test run in lunar orbit. Apollo 10 did everything but land on the Moon, setting the stage for the main event a few months later. Young and Cernan returned to walk on the Moon aboard Apollo 16 and 17 respectively. Cernan, who died in 2017, was the last human being (so far) to set foot on the Moon.

7—The Main Event


The launch of Apollo 11—the first mission to land humans on the Moon—provided another iconic visual as Saturn-V AS-506 roared to life on Launch Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Three days later, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin made the first of many bootprints in the lunar dust (supported from orbit by Michael Collins).

8—Moon Men


Saturn V rockets carried 24 humans to the Moon, and 12 of them walked on its surface between 1969 and 1972. Thirteen are still alive today. The youngest, all in their early 80s, are moonwalkers Charles Duke (Apollo 16) and Harrison Schmitt (Apollo 17) and Command Module Pilot Ken Mattingly (Apollo 16, and also one of the heroes who helped rescue Apollo 13). There is no single image of all the humans who have visited the Moon.

9—The Flexible Saturn V


The Saturn V’s swan song was to lay the groundwork for establishing a permanent human presence in space. Skylab, launched into Earth orbit in 1973, was America’s first space station, a precursor to the current International Space Station. Skylab’s ride to orbit was a Saturn IV-B 3rd stage, launched by a Saturn 1-C and SII Saturn V stages.

This was the last launch of a Saturn V, but you can still see the three remaining giant rockets at the visitor centers at Johnson Space Center in Texas and Kennedy Space Center in Florida and at the United States Space and Rocket Center in Alabama (near Marshall Space Flight Center, one of the birthplaces of the Saturn V).

10—The Next Generation


The Saturn V was retired in 1973. Work is now underway on a fleet of rockets. We are planning an uncrewed flight test of Space Launch System (SLS) rocket to travel beyond the Moon called Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1). “This is a mission that truly will do what hasn’t been done and learn what isn’t known,” said Mike Sarafin, EM-1 mission manager at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

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A Tour of our Moon

Want to go to the Moon? 

Let our Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter take you there!


Our lunar orbiter, also known as LRO, has been collecting data on lunar topography, temperature, resources, solar radiation, and geology since it launched nine years ago. Our latest collection of this data is now in 4K resolution. This updated “Tour of the Moon” takes you on a virtual tour of our nearest neighbor in space, with new science updates from the vastly expanded data trove.

Orientale Basin


First stop, Orientale Basin located on the rim of the western nearside. It’s about the size of Texas and is the best-preserved impact structure on the Moon. Topography data from LRO combined with gravity measurements from our twin GRAIL spacecraft reveal the structure below the surface and help us understand the geologic consequences of large impacts.

South-Pole and Shackleton Crater


Unlike Earth, the Moon’s axis is barely tilted relative to the Sun. This means that there are craters at the poles where the sunlight never reaches, called permanently shadowed regions. As a result, the Moon’s South Pole has some of the coldest measured places in the solar system. How cold? -410 degrees F.

Because these craters are so cold and dark, water that happens to find its way into them never has the opportunity to evaporate. Several of the instruments on LRO have found evidence of water ice, which you can see in the highlighted spots in this visualization.

South-Pole Aitken Basin


South Pole-Aitken Basin is the Moon’s largest, deepest and oldest observed impact structure. Its diameter is about 2,200 km or 1,367 miles across and takes up ¼ of the Moon! If there was a flat, straight road and you were driving 60 mph, it would take you about 22 hours to drive across. And the basin is so deep that nearly two Mount Everests stacked on each other would fit from the bottom of the basin to the rim. South-Pole Aitken Basin is a top choice for a landing site on the far side of the Moon.

Tycho Crater


Now let’s go to the near side. Tycho Crater is 100 million years young. Yes, that’s young in geologic time. The central peak of the impact crater likely formed from material that rebounded back up after being compressed in the impact, almost like a spring. Check out that boulder on top. It looks small in this image, but it could fill a baseball stadium.

Aristarchus Plateau


Also prominent on the nearside is the Aristarchus Plateau. It features a crater so bright that you could see it with your naked eye from Earth! The Aristarchus Plateau is particularly interesting to our scientists because it reveals much of the Moon’s volcanic history. The region is covered in rocks from volcanic eruptions and the large river-like structure is actually a channel made from a long-ago lava flow.

Apollo 17 Landing Site

As much as we study the Moon looking for sites to visit, we also look back at places we’ve already been. This is because the new data that LRO is gathering helps us reinterpret the geology of familiar places, giving scientists a better understanding of the sequence of events in early lunar history.

Here, we descend to the Apollo 17 landing site in the Taurus-Littrow valley, which is deeper than the Grand Canyon. The LRO camera is even able to capture a view of the bottom half of the Apollo 17 Lunar Lander, which still sits on the surface, as well as the rover vehicle. These images help preserve our accomplishment of human exploration on the Moon’s surface.

North Pole


Finally, we reach the North Pole. Like the South Pole, there are areas that are in permanent shadow and others that bask in nearly perpetual light. LRO scientists have taken detailed brightness and terrain measurements of the North Pole in order to model these areas of sunlight and shadow through time.  Sunlit peaks and crater rims here may be ideal locations for generating solar power for future expeditions to the Moon.

LRO was designed as a one-year mission. Now in its ninth year, the spacecraft and the data emphasize the power of long-term data collection. Thanks to its many orbits around the Moon, we have been able to expand on lunar science from the Apollo missions while paving the way for future lunar exploration. And as the mission continues to gather data, it will provide us with many more opportunities to take a tour of our Moon. 

And HERE’s the full “Tour of the Moon” video:

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