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Bill DunfordFebruary 25, 2013

Postcards from Clementine

Nineteen years ago this month, the Clementine mission arrived at the moon. A joint project of NASA and the Department of Defense, Clementine's goals focused on testing lightweight sensors and other deep-space technology demos—but the results reached far beyond that. Besides several technical accomplishments, the mission returned a complete map of the moon, images of the Earth, and confirmed the existance of lunar water ice.

Compared to the instruments on current spacecraft, Clementine's images were relatively small and low resolution. But a search through the raw data reveals some hidden gems. Here are some of my favorite postcards that the intrepid robotic explorer sent home.

The orbiter carried geologic mapping cameras, which let us see some lovely landscapes.

The Sea of Cleverness

NASA / Naval Research Laboratory / Bill Dunford

The Sea of Cleverness
The Clementine orbiter captured this strikingly textured image of Mare Ingenii, "The Sea of Cleverness" on the lunar far side. I've stretched the contrast slightly and removed some very small seams in the image.

Splash of Rays

NASA / Naval Research Laboratory / Bill Dunford

Splash of Rays
An unnamed rayed crater on the lunar far side, near Mandel'shtam Crater. The Clementine orbiter captured this dramatic image using its UV/visual camera.

Clementine also relied on small, very lightweight (300-gram!) star tracker cameras to help it navigate, a modern version of a sailor with a sextant. It turned out that these navigational aids delivered some of the most amazing images of the entire mission.

An Eclipse by Earthlight

NASA / Naval Research Laboratory / Bill Dunford

An Eclipse by Earthlight
The Clementine lunar orbiter sees the solar corona as the moon eclipses the sun. The moon is partially illuminated by reflected Earthshine.

The star trackers returned small files, but sometimes they contained some pretty amazing views. 

The Moon in Motion

NASA / Naval Research Laboratory / Bill Dunford

The Moon in Motion
The Clementine lunar orbiter uses one of its star tracking cameras to observe the moon as it passes in front of the sun.

In one dramatic case, the heavens aligned so that Clementine could see the moon eclipsing the sun as the planet Venus shone brilliantly in the same scene. 

The Moon, the Sun, and Venus

NASA / Naval Research Laboratory

The Moon, the Sun, and Venus
This is one of the most widely-seen images from the Clementine mission to the moon in the 1990s: the Moon eclipsing the Sun, with the planet Venus shining brightly nearby.

While the picture above that NASA published is one of the most famous images from the mission, it's by no means the only one the spacecraft sent down. Here's another take. Below is a different frame from the same sequence of images. I've stretched the contrast of the raw image a little, but unlike the more famous picture, I've chosen to leave the 'sparkle' created by Venus dazzling the sensor.

The Moon and the Evening Star

NASA / Naval Research Laboratory / Bill Dunford

The Moon and the Evening Star
One of the star tracker cameras onboard the Clementine orbiter captured the moon and Venus, which was so bright it somewhat overwhelmed the image sensor.

Clementine may not be the most celebrated deep space mission of all time, but it was an important stepping stone. And the stories it left behind are amazing even now. 

Read more: pretty pictures, amateur image processing, the Moon, NASA lunar missions before 2005

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