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NASA's lunar orbiter sends back results of first Kodak moments

A little over a week ago, one of two tandem spacecraft NASA sent to the moon June 18 beamed back images of the lunar surface -- a test of its instrument package.

Today, the long-term workhorse, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, has done the same. It's supplied crisp images of the lunar surface along the day-night line, or terminator, just east of the moon's Hell E crater. That's a dimple in the lunar surface associated with, well, Hell Crater.

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We've served up a slice here. You can get it all with extra cheese at the LRO image site.

Mark Robinson, an Arizona State University researcher who is destined to become the Ansel Adams of the lunar surface (he's in charge of the orbiter's cameras), notes that his team was unsure how the pictures would turn out.

The long shadows make the terrain look more rugged than it really is. Still, even though these are test shots, they indicate that the cameras are ready for prime time. The system boasts three: a wide-angle camera and two narrow-angle cameras. The narrow cameras capture objects as small as some 20 inches across.

Currently, the craft's orbit carries it to within 19 miles of the south pole and out to 124 miles above the moon's north pole. This is the shake-down phase for the full suite of seven instruments the orbiter carries, the cameras representing one set.

By the end of next month, the orbiter should be circling the moon 31 miles above its surface as it begins its first year of observations. The goal: Find some safe places where astronauts can land, get a good bead on the kind of radiation levels they'd face on the surface, and above all, hunt for evidence of water ice beneath the surface -- a critical resource for living off the land.