A Big Day for Space

In 1964, Ranger 7 sent back close-up photos of the Moon, with clarity 1000 times clearer than we could see through our telescopes on Earth. In order to accomplish this, the spacecraft was loaded with a dozen cameras (both video and still) and intentionally crashed into the Moon’s surface, sending pictures back to Earth all the way to impact.

Moon from Earth

Crashing spacecraft into the Moon might sound like a one-time lark, but on this date in 1999, NASA crashed the Discovery Lunar Prospector into the Moon, again on purpose. The idea was that the impact would release water vapor from possible ice crystals, but alas, no vapor plume. Luckily, before the crash, the spacecraft spent months mapping the lunar surface and measuring gravitational and magnetic fields.

In 1971, the astronauts of Apollo 15 took the first vehicle ride on the lunar surface. Over three days on the Moon, astronauts David Scott and John Irwin spent more than 18 hours tootling around and gathering 170 pounds of moon dust and rocks.

Moon Rock at NASM

In 1976, NASA released its “face on Mars” photo, later featured in an episode of The X-Files, in which a former astronaut is haunted by his Martian encounter.

On July 31, 1981, there was a total eclipse of the Sun. A solar eclipse occurs when the Moon is positioned between the Sun and the Earth, so that from our vantage, the Moon briefly covers the Sun. Our last total eclipse was on July 11 of this year; astronomer Glenn Schneider mapped an airplane route in order to observe the solar eclipse for more than nine minutes (but a Concorde holds the 74-minute record). Mark your calendar—the next total eclipse will be November 13, 2012.

It’s also the 110th anniversary of Antoine de Saint-Exupury’s death. The French pilot is the author of Wind, Sand and Stars and the children’s classic The Little Prince.

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