Mapping the Moon: A Brief History of Lunar Cartography from Galileo to the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter

Mapping the Moon

A Brief History of Lunar Cartography from Galileo to the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter

Apollo Orbital Photography

Photographic mapping of the Moon continued during Project Apollo. The final three flights—Apollos 15, 16, and 17—carried metric mapping and panoramic cameras during their long-duration stays in lunar orbit.

An illustration of Apollo 16’s SIM bay in the Service Module. The SIM bay door was jettisoned during the flight to the Moon. Image source: Ertel, Ivan D., et al. The Apollo Spacecraft: A Chronology, vol. 4. NASA, 1969.


The lunar mapping and panoramic cameras were mounted in the Apollo Scientific Instrument Module (SIM) bay of the Service Module on Apollos 15 through 17. The cameras and other science experiments in the SIM bay were operated by the Command Module Pilot in orbit while his colleagues were on the lunar surface.

Photograph of the Apollo 17 Command Module, America, that gives a clear view of the SIM bay. The picture was taken by astronauts in the Lunar Module, Challenger, after their stay on the surface. Image source: NASA photograph AS17-145-22254.

Illustration of the mapping and panoramic camera systems in operation in lunar orbit. Image source: Masursky, Harold, et al. Apollo Over the Moon: A View from Orbit. NASA, 1978. View Source

Orbital Imagery

While obtaining orbital photographs of the Moon, a laser altimeter measured the distance to the surface. In addition to tracking data from Mission Control, a stellar camera photographed a star field with each frame of the terrain cameras to record the spacecraft’s orientation and position. The areas covered with each terrain photograph overlapped so that mapmakers could compile a comprehensive chart of the ground track.

Tsiolkovsky Crater, located on the far side of the Moon, photographed with Apollo 17’s lunar mapping camera. Image source: NASA photograph AS-17-M-2798.

Final Apollo Flights

The final three Apollo flights took nearly 10,000 photographs with mapping cameras and approximately 4,800 panoramic images.

Ron Evans, Apollo 17 Command Module Pilot, retrieves the panoramic camera film canister during an EVA on the return trip to Earth. Evans was outside the spacecraft for 67 minutes. Image source: NASA photograph AS17-152-23391.

Deep Space EVAs

Command Module Pilots retrieved film cannisters from the SIM bay during an extravehicular activity (EVA) after leaving lunar orbit. The EVAs were performed in deep space, over 190,000 miles from Earth.