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| Space on Apr 24, 2014

The zodiacal light, seen from the moon

NASA’s LADEE spacecraft captured images of the eerie zodiacal light seen from the moon, shortly before it made a planned crash-landing on April 17.

Zodiacal light at the Moon from the LADEE moon orbiter.  The spacecraft took this series of images of the sun rising above the lunar horizon on April 12, 2014, just five days before LADEE's orbit decayed to the point where it crashed into the lunar surface. The series begins with LADEE viewing the lunar horizon ahead, a few minutes before orbital sunrise. At this position, there is already a glow of zodiacal light in the sky above the completely dark surface of the moon, though the sun is many degrees below the horizon. LADEE’s orbital motion makes the stars appear to move to the left. The same motion brings the sun closer to the horizon ahead and the glow gets brighter. In fact, the glow becomes so bright, parts of the image are saturated. Finally, sunrise fully saturates the camera image.   NASA Ames image via Emily Lakdawalla.

Zodiacal light at the moon as captured by the LADEE moon orbiter. The spacecraft took this series of images of the sun rising above the lunar horizon on April 12, 2014, just five days before LADEE’s orbit decayed to the point where it crashed into the lunar surface. The series begins with LADEE viewing the lunar horizon ahead, a few minutes before orbital sunrise. At this position, there is already a glow of zodiacal light in the sky above the completely dark surface of the moon, though the sun is many degrees below the horizon. LADEE’s orbital motion makes the stars appear to move to the left. The same motion brings the sun closer to the horizon ahead and the glow gets brighter. In fact, the glow becomes so bright, parts of the image are saturated. Finally, sunrise fully saturates the camera image. Caption and image via NASA Ames via Emily Lakdawalla.

NASA’s robotic moon explorer, LADEE, crashed into the back side of the moon, as planned, on April 17, 2014. Just five days earlier, it captured this amazing imagery of the zodiacal light as seen from the moon’s vicinity. Looks a bit like twilight, doesn’t it? But remember, although twilight here on Earth is an atmospheric phenomenon, this is the moon, and the moon has no air. The zodiacal light – long called the false dawn, from the 12th century poem The Rubaiyat by Omar Khayyam – is really sunlight reflecting off dust grains that move in the plane of our solar system. So of course it’s visible from the moon as well!

By the way, researchers believe LADEE likely vaporized upon contact with the lunar surface because of its extreme orbiting speed of 3,600 mph. They think it may have smacked into a mountain or side of a crater. No debris would have been left behind.

Read more about the LADEE mission and this image from Emily Lakdawalla at the Planetary Society.

Learn more about the zodiacal light, or false dawn, as seen from Earth

* When false dawn streaks the east with cold, gray line,
Pour in your cups the pure blood of the vine;
The truth, they say, tastes bitter in the mouth,
This is a token that the ‘Truth’ is wine.

Bottom line: NASA’s LADEE spacecraft captured this image of the zodiacal light as seen from the moon, five days before it crashed into the moon’s surface on April 17, 2014.