Images taken by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter have helped to answer a long-standing question about the old Apollo landing sites on the Moon – are any of the flags planted there by the astronauts still standing today? It turns out that yes, almost all of them are.
It was thought that the flags might be able to keep standing on the airless lunar surface for a long time, since there is no weather or other surface activity to knock them down. The photos confirm that is apparently indeed the case; the shadows cast by the flags can be seen in the images.
Six flags were erected by the astronauts during the Apollo missions between 1969 and 1972. The only flag that isn’t standing anymore is the first one, put there by Apollo 11. In this case, however, it was reported that the flag was knocked over by the exhaust from the ascent engine of Apollo 11 as it blasted off to return to Earth. As astronaut Buzz Aldrin noted in his 1973 memoir, Return to Earth, “I was concentrating intently on the computers, and Neil was studying the attitude indicator, but I looked up long enough to see the flag fall over.”
So while most of the flags are physically still standing tall and proud, whether or not the patterns on them are still visible or not is another question. The colours have likely faded due to the extreme ultraviolet light from the Sun.
According to Paul Spudis, senior staff scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, Texas, “Even on Earth, the colors of a cloth flag flown in bright sunlight for many years will eventually fade and need to be replaced. So it is likely that these symbols of American achievement have been rendered blank, bleached white by the UV radiation of unfiltered sunlight on the lunar surface.”
Will these new images finally convince the doubters that we really did land on the Moon. Probably not, but hopefully sometime in the relatively near future new astronauts can revisit them, and also plant new flags of their own.